People love films because of their evocative nature. Whether the film stimulates their motivation to survive the travails of life, or it simply amuses them, films portray, literally and metaphorically, the human spirit present in everyday life. Sometimes, films also have the ability to make viewers abandon the now even for just a short while, serving as a temporary cure for the ills of the present. While movies do not always precisely mirror life and they can sometimes be inaccurate or misleading, they have a goal - a message to send. And when they are masterfully made and portrayed, they become works of art that can stand the test of time, and the goal is more than achieved – the message reverberates through generations. A compelling movie leaves an eternal imprint that rouses society to continually discuss and seek resolution to relevant issues, like in this post, mental illness.
Movies about mental illness, or better yet, the best movies about mental illness, are in a league of their own due to their ability to coerce a viewer into introspection, analysis, and awareness surrounding their personal life, outlook, and tendencies.
The best movies about mental health and illness
Almost every year around the world, movies tackling mental health and illness in some way are released. The conveyance with which these movies send messages about mental illness varies, depending on the target audience. Nevertheless, whether it is shell shock from World War I or clinical depression or bipolar disorder or even psychosis, only the best and most timeless stand out. Here are the best movies about mental illness and mental health, their chronological range spanning more than four decades:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
This movie started a trend by which mental institutions are portrayed in cinema. Petty but recidivist criminal Randall McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) wishes to avoid hard labor in prison and thus opts to be transferred to a mental institution, even if he is not legally insane. The story picks up from his arrival to his frequent and argumentative encounters with the tyrannical head nurse who uses intimidation, physical, and mental torture to keep the occasionally surly patients in line. The conflict revolves chiefly around the head nurse’s delusion that her tactics are actually helping the patients, who in turn, deal with stories, fears, and aspirations of their own, despite their obvious inadequacies. The movie objectively conveys the reasonable believability of what goes on inside mental institutions and how mental patients are dealt with, hidden from public view.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Based on the true story of American mathematician and economist John Forbes Nash, who successfully dealt with schizophrenia en route to his numerous academic and scientific milestones and accolades. The movie details his ascent in the academic field, embattled yet unperturbed, and bent on conquering his mental illness and personal struggles. A stunning cinematic work, it interweaves Nash’s quest for personal glory, knowledge, fears, joys, and cure to his illness, with the public’s perverted view of mental health serving as a realistic backdrop.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
What qualifies as crazy? Does excessive emotionality categorize one as legally crazy? Based on the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted portrays mental illness from a rather different and shaky perspective. Susanna herself suffers from a borderline personality disorder and is confined in the mental institution where she rubs elbows with patients whose convoluted stories prompt further introspection on her part. The movie is a realistic and in-depth view of the warm, genuine, and sometimes deceitful interpersonal relationships forged between patients in mental institutions.
Ordinary People (1980)
Of the movies on the list, Ordinary People is the easiest to relate to for viewers and an award-winning classic at that. The movie narrates the struggle of a family to deal with the aftermath of a shattering tragedy in which one son died, leaving the sole surviving son traumatized and unable to return to normal, routinely life, and leaving the mother curiously indifferent to her son’s emotional and psychological issues. The movie is poignant, to say the least, but the uncomplicated setup of the nuclear family makes absorption of the issue of mental health so much easier.
Shutter Island (2010)
Engrossed with investigating a murderer’s jailbreak, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) begins the arduous task of analyzing angles, clues, and connections, prompting him to doubt his own sanity. The movie underscores the thin line that separates memory from thinking, as well as the dichotomy between reality and perception. The movie subtly underscores the importance of using psychological fortitude as a barometer whether or not people are fit to undertake emotionally tolling professions.
I am Sam (2001)
An unusual take on the issue of mental illness and health, the movie narrates the melancholic tale of a mentally challenged father Sam who defies odds to in pursuit of the custody of his 7-year-old daughter. When social services attempt to take his daughter away on grounds of his mental incapacity, Sam enlists the help of a jaded but compassionate lawyer who understands everything. Sean Penn delivers a masterful performance as Sam. With the Beatles' breathtakingly grandiose musical genius serving as an appropriate backdrop, the movie delivers the message of hope and sincere, unadulterated love in the face of irreversible personal disorders and inadequacies.
Rain Man (1988)
This film is widely credited as one of the first to highlight the challenging yet unique reality of autism and its sufferers, analyzing and exploring the depths and nuances of mental illness. The release of the movie is also hailed as a watershed moment in medical science’s approach to research on autism. Central to the movie’s plot is how autism sufferers can indeed be labeled as “special,” while still be functioning and productive members of society.
As Good as It Gets (1997)
A light, bittersweet yet strikingly accurate take on obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is praised by many mental health professionals due to its realistic depiction of the disorder. The film tells the story of Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson), a reclusive and casually brutal yet essentially warmhearted writer suffering from OCD, whose daily life centers on rigid routines and petty yet fanatical configurations which make his person insufferable. His encounters with life’s uncomfortable truths trigger further self-examination, a dramatic turnaround, and eventual triumph over the disorder that hampered and complicated his entire life prior.
Mental illness and health, sadly, continue to be at the forefront of contentious issues, even in the 21st century. Painfully caught between science, stigma, misinformation, and tradition, indeed, there is still a long way to go before all obstacles are hurdled. But even if glimpses of the promise are few and far between, immediate access to information is slowly but surely turning the tide. As such, it behooves anyone interested in mental illness to watch these best movies about mental illness and health for further enlightenment.
Movies aren’t just for fun, amusement, or a form of an emotional roller coaster. Movies possess the power to open eyes about life’s bitter truths that hamper people on a daily basis, they can change and broaden perspectives, as well as educate on the most divisive of issues. Even academic institutions acknowledge the social relevance and the learning opportunities movies present by assigning movie reviews as homework or a term paper.
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