11 Films & TV Shows That Actually Depict Mental Illness Well
Every May, we acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month, but this year, as we continue to collectively navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it feels particularly important to discuss and prioritize mental health. While social distancing guidelines are loosening thanks to the vaccine rollout, many folks are still feeling isolated and uncertain. Over the last year, we've all developed new routines, new comfort zones, and, of course, new ways of managing our mental health. As a result, dipping our toes back into some-version-of-normal can feel both jarring and relieving all at once.Â
So, how does popular entertainment figure into this discussion? It's no secret that representation matters. Seeing accurate, nuanced depictions of mental illness and disorders not only helps folks living with those illnesses, disorders and conditions feel seen, butÂ such portrayals of real-life experiences can be a way to educate, build support, and dispel harmful misinformation. Not to mention, it can help folks feelÂ less ostracized.Â
However, according to a study conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (USC AII) and published in May 2019, "Out of 4,598 speaking characters across the 100 top films of 2016, only 76 [or 1.7%] were depicted with a significant or persistent mental health condition." As the study points out, this is a stark contrast with our reality: roughly 20% of adults in the U.S. live with a mental health condition and/or mental illness. Without a doubt, art has the propensity to dismantle stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental illness â and itâs about time film and television harness that potential.
Editor's Note: This article contains mentions of various mental illnesses and mental health disorders as well as discussions of how some of these illnesses and disorders are portrayed, both accurately and poorly, in film and TV. Additionally, while the films and TV shows at the end of the article depict mental illness and mental health disorders accurately for the most part, it's important to note that these depictions may not resonate for some readers as everyone's experience with mental illness and mental health disorders is nuanced and specific.Â
Why Is It Important to Accurately Depict Characters With Mental Illness?
In both mediums, mental health is often stigmatized, used as a plot device, or trivialized â you know, made into a character "quirk" instead of being taken seriously. The aforementioned study found that, of 87 film characters who have mental health conditions or mental illness, 47% of characters were disparaged; 22% of charactersâ mental health conditions or mental illness were met with humor; and 15% of characters felt the need to conceal their mental health condition or mental illness.Â
Moreover, when characters with mental illness are portrayed on screen, 46% of them were found to be perpetrators of violence. Regardless of intention, most films and shows unfortunately normalize name-calling, with characters slinging words like "psycho," "crazy," "freak," "silly," "nuts," "weird" and "monster" at other characters who outwardly express a mental health condition or illness.
The study also shows that when there is representation, itâs not reflective of most audience membersâ identities or experiences. For example, while 20% of teenagers in the U.S. experience a mental health condition, only 7% of film characters (of that 87) were teens.Â
Moreover,Â Mental Health America found that 6.8 million Black Americans report having a diagnosable mental illness, but, despite this fact, only 11 of the characters with mental health conditions surveyed by USC AII were Black.Â This trend of underrepresentation continues for all people of color: Only four of the characters in the survey were Asian; only one character was multiracial; and none of the characters identified as Hispanic, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Native Hawai'ian or Pacific Islander, or as Indigenous or First Nations peoples.
Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has found that LGB adults are more than twice as likely as straight adults to experience a mental health condition. Not to mention, LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk than cis and/or straight folks for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. But portrayals of mental illness often leave out the LGBTQ+ community as well. Out of 50 TV shows surveyed by USC AII, just eight LGB characters experienced mental health conditions, while the transgender community wasnât represented at all. And, out of 100 films, none of the characters with mental health conditions identified as being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
All of this is to say that, in addition to stigmatizing mental illness, on-screen depictions often donât account for the multifaceted experiences of most folks, nor do these depictions account for the way the aspects of an individual's may intersect. In fact, there's hardly any accounting forÂ diversity in race, gender or sexual orientation at all, nor is there an attempt to understand how those intersections of identity may interact with mental health conditions or illness. So, how can creators work toward more authentic, nuanced and safe portrayals of mental illness?
Common Onscreen Faux Pas When It Comes to Depicting Mental Illness
In order to shift how stories portray characters with mental health conditions and mental illness, USC AII suggests that writers ask themselves a very fundamental question: Why am I telling this story? This can help creators avoid common pitfalls, like depicting unnecessary stigma, using a mental health condition as a plot device, and/or making mental illness into the punchline. To be frank, the lived experiences of folks who have mental health conditions and illnesses are missing from popular culture.
And, when these experiences are depicted, theyâre often displayed irresponsibly: Netflixâs 13 Reasons Why was heavily criticized for its depiction of death by suicide, an act thatâs often romanticized or shown as "the only choice" a character can make. As in life, medication is stigmatized, with characters eschewing treatment because it inhibits them in some way â such as the old trope of an artist who canât create because they feel blocked by their medication. Moreover, because mental health conditions and illnesses are stigmatized and often associated with shame â a dark secret a character must hide or canât talk about â they often arenât surrounded by any sort of support system.
And then thereâs the association between mental illness and violence thatâs particularly prevalent in the horror genre, which derives scares from our very human fear of the "unknown" or the "unfamiliar." For example, in Alfred Hitchcockâs classic Psycho, a movie that spawned countless slasher films, the main character, serial killer Norman Bates, is given a "diagnosis" by a psychiatrist, who cites a "split personality" as the source of Batesâ violent tendencies. "When the mind houses two personalities, there is always a battle," he says. "In Normanâs case, the battle is over and the dominant personality has won."
Like Psycho, many other critically acclaimed films, which have, in some cases, been praised for their depiction of mental illness, arenât without their faults. A writer for Resources to Recover states that although the Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind "may have done more than any other popular movie to combat stigma and draw attention to the positive contributions of people with serious mental health disorders," it still misses the mark.Â
"The only problem is that [the intriguing Soviet espionage plot line] all takes place in [John] Nashâs head, as the audience discovers late in the story," states Resources to Recover writer Jay Boll. "Hollywood loves twists, and mental illness is one of its favorite plot devices for spinning a story in a new direction. But people with schizophrenia donât normally have visual hallucinations where they see the human players in their delusions represented before them."
Another acclaimed miss?Â Silver Linings Playbook. While the dramedy, which centers on two characters with bipolar disorder, may depict the toll mental illness takes on individuals and families in a more realistic, nuanced way, it misses the mark when it comes to treatment and managing mental illness. That is, for most folks living with mental health conditions or mental illness, the day-to-day is about managing â not "curing."Â
"Silver Linings Playbook is my favorite movie of all time and itâs very relatable," says The Mighty user Maddie B. "[But] it falls short in the ending where it gave an impression they were âcuredâ by love. I donât think that was the intention, but it looked that way." That is, the characters getting together feels inextricably linked to their mental well-being. Perhaps this speaks more to the limitations of film and television shows, which (feel the need to) resolve charactersâ "struggles" in two hours or less. But, limitations or not, this sort of resolution perpetuates the idea that something is "wrong" with the characters and that they can heal one another if they just try hard enough.
Movies and Shows That Get It (Mostly) Right
But when it comes to mental health representation and the depiction of mental illness and disorders, itâs not all bad news. In fact, in the last decade a few standout shows and movies have made great strides by centering lived experiences; depicting characters who seek treatment and support; and eschewing stigma â or at least having the main character navigate it authentically. Most of all, a common thread here is that the characters depicted in these pieces all learn thereâs no Hollywood-esque cure-all for their mental health conditions or mental illness. Instead, they learn to manage and live with them.
Children's Media: Animated Films & Shows
Inside Out (2015): In this landmark film from animation giant Pixar, a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) deals with depression when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. For those who havenât seen Inside Out, the film personifies the emotions that exist inside Riley and influence how she presents herself to the outside world. Two of those emotions, Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Joy (Amy Poehler), drive the plot. By her nature, Joy just wants to find a way for Riley to be happy again before she completely shuts down.Â
On the outside, Riley represses her emotions and, while experiencing depression, lashes out at her parents and tries to run away. In the end, Sadness convinces Joy that itâs more than okay to be sad sometimes â in fact, itâs better to feel sad, to talk about those feelings, than to mask them with faux-happiness.
Steven Universe & Steven Universe Future:Â Created by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network, Steven Universe tells the coming-of-age story of the titular boy (Zach Callison).Â Although Stevenâs dad is a car wash-owning rock musician, his mom, Rose Quartz, was a Gem â a magical, humanoid alien from outer space. Years ago, Rose led her team of rebel Crystal Gems in a war against their alien Homeworld, all in an effort to protect Earth. Now, Steven has inherited her powers, life-force, drive to protect Earth â and, as it turns out, Rose's not-so-sterling legacy.Â
Most often, Steven Universe is touted (and rightly so!) for its landmark queer representation, but the show also does an incredible job of delving into mental illness and illustrating that one's mental health is just as important as their physical well-being. This can be seen in quite a few characters and over numerous episode arcs, but, most recently, the show's spin-off series, Steven Universe Future, made revolutionary strides. In this spin-off, Steven has saved the world(s) and is trying to find his place in everything.Â
The abilities Steven inherited from Rose have always helped him survive by imbuing him with what he needs in the moment. "Itâs [his body and abilities] making him whatever he needs to be to get out of a life-threatening situation," Sugar explained in an interview about Future. "The problem is that heâs not in a life-threatening situation, but his body has learned to react that way.âÂ Instead of confronting his own needs, Steven continues to help others and push aside his trauma, all of which leads to him admitting his unbearable pain, and, eventually,Â receiving a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.
Frozen (2013): This one may come as a surprise to some readers. Sure, Frozen has an anthropomorphic snowman and a wildly catchy song that our brains just canât let go of, but Elsa (Idina Menzel) and her ice powers are also the perfect metaphor for dealing with anxiety and depression, which director Jennifer Lee says is no coincidence. After hurting her sister with her ice powers as a child, Elsa, at the behest of her parents, locks herself away in her room and lives by the mantra "conceal, donât feel." For Elsa, her past mistake means she "deserves" isolation â she feels sheâs a "bad person." In the end, Elsa learns that she can't hide parts of herself; instead, she must manage her emotion-fueled powers.
Live-Action TV Series
Lady Dynamite: Loosely based on comedian (and creator/star) Maria Bamfordâs experience being hospitalized for bipolar disorder, Lady Dynamite doesnât treat the main characterâs mental illness as an obstacle or as an excuse for surreal or comic moments. Writing for Slate, Evelyn Anne Clauson argues that the show builds Bamfordâs bipolar disorder "into the very fabric of its worldâŠ Itâs the rare comedy that shows us that the reality of mental illness is that darkness can coexist with creativity and fun and hope."
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Although at first this show seems like it will be all over-the-top musical numbers and a lot of the main character Rebecca (creator Rachel Bloom) harping on her ex, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually depicts a woman who is triggered by intimacy and relationships and who must navigate depression, anxiety, OCD, fixation and borderline personality disorder. Throughout the show, Rebecca is unwilling to really open up to her therapist â a source of frustration for the viewer, which, in a way, helps underscore how important seeking treatment really is for folks with mental illness. Writing for Self, Claire Gillespie notes that "At the crux of Crazy Ex-Girlfriendâs success is its understanding that mental illness doesnât end with a diagnosis."
One Day at a Time: With three strong seasons on Netflix, this heartfelt reboot of the classic Norman Lear sitcom centers on the Cuban-American Alvarez family. Without sacrificing a modern perspective â and the desire to deal with topics other sitcoms would balk at â One Day at a TimeÂ still holds onto that filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience feel. Apart from being a great comedy, this reboot stands out because of the way it holds spaceÂ for those who may not have seen their own lives and concerns reflected in the sitcoms of yesteryear.Â
When it comes to mental health disorders and mental illness, One Day at a Time's main character, PenelopeÂ AlvarezÂ (Justina Machado), lives with post-traumatic stress, which stems from her time as aÂ United States Army Nurse Corps veteran. The show confronts the stigma surrounding mental illness and disorders head-on: Penelope grapples with sharing her diagnosis, attending a support group, asking for help, and taking medication â all of which makes this honest portrayal incredibly important.Â
Youâre the Worst: In the second season of FXXâs edgy dramedy Youâre the Worst, one of the showâs main characters, Gretchen (Aya Cash), spends a day drinking and essentially running away from a depressive episode. Of course, she canât outrun it. Moreover, she realizes she canât hide her diagnosed clinical depression from her partner. Fearing sheâll alienate him, Gretchen downplays her clinical depression, but, as Vulture points out, "whatâs especially striking about this scene is that it takes place in an episode that is, by and large, overly comic." That is, the surrounding circumstances are funny, but the characterâs mental health is never the punchline.
The Perks of Being a WallflowerÂ (2012):Â Writer Stephen Chbosky decided to adapt his seminal young adult novel into a film because he feels itâs "harder to feel alone if you see dozens of people around you laughing and crying or nodding their heads at the same issues." It also helps that the film depicts the main character Charlieâs (Logan Lerman) depression in a nuanced, genuine way: Charlie makes new best friends and shares real happiness and laughter with them. What he doesnât share? Everything thatâs bottled up inside of him.Â
The film has also received praise for how it portrays post-traumatic stress insofar as Charlie is navigating his memories of childhood sexual abuse in addition to a depression that those around him link to other events in his life. Moreover, Charlie's romantic relationship with Sam (Emma Watson) doesn't magically fix or save him; instead, she's just one part of his support system and helps him, boundaries in tact, to navigate his mental illness.
Horse Girl (2020): Called an "unorthodox" take on mental illness by IndieWire, Horse Girl stars Alison Brie (Glow, Promising Young Woman) as Sarah, a young woman who finds her day-to-day life uprooted after her dreams seem to spill into her real life. As the film progresses, the audience learns that Sarah's family has a history of mental illness, which makes her, at times, unwilling to trust what she's seeing or thinking. Unlike other thriller-like films that toe that not-quite-sure-what's-real line, Horse Girl feels more intentional.Â
Not only is the film anchored by Brie's strong performance and a Charlie Kaufman-esque narrative structure, but it's informed by the star's own lived experiences. Calling it "quite a personal project," Brie explained that her character stems from her own family history. "My motherâs mother lived with paranoid schizophrenia and I grew up hearing stories about her and my motherâs childhood and just knowing that mental illness existed in my bloodline," Brie told IndieWire. "The older I get and the more I have my own bouts of depression and struggles I become acutely aware that this [mental illness] is in my DNA."
Synecdoche, New York (2008):Â Speaking of Charlie Kaufman, the writer-director's post-modern film, Synecdoche, New York, never puts a name to what its protagonist, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is experiencing, but it does resonate as a depiction of mental illness in some ways. Caden, a theater director, attempts to stage an increasingly elaborate show â in fact, it goes on for years and years because he can't quite get his magnum opus right; doppelgĂ€ngers, akin to folks in his shrinking personal life, populate the cast and crew; and, in general, his dedication to depicting realism end up blurring the lines between his play and his life.Â
It takes the Shakespearean notion of "a play within a play" much further. We see Caden strive for perfectionism, deal with intrusive thoughts, and grapple with the anxiety surrounding how others perceive him and his work, all of which feel akin to how some individuals experience obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), even if the film never names it.Â
Melancholia (2011):Â The film's director has said the aptly-titled Melancholia stems from his own experiences with a depressive episode, but, even more so, it's the execution of this movie that really resonates. The story centers on two sisters, Justine and Claire, played byÂ Kirsten Dunst andÂ Charlotte Gainsbourg respectively. While Justine prepares for her wedding, she navigates her depression â as well as the fact that a rogue planet is set to collide catastrophically with Earth. Often, it's difficult to capture depression on film or in writing, but Melancholia's pervasive sense of impending doom, of lethargy, feels like an apt way to portray the protagonist'sÂ mental health disorder.Â