Last Updated on December 11, 2020 by Dr. Ronaye Calvert-Conley
Movies have evolved into a form of ubiquitous art that represents society and influences it at the same time. The film industry is one of the most powerful vehicles for leisure, education, and culture. It highlights relatable nuances of different aspects of society—including the issue of mental illnesses and below you’ll find 12 amazing movies about mental illness.
But since mental health is an often misunderstood, complex, and stigmatized subject, misrepresentation is easy. That’s why it’s important to recognize and appreciate mental health movies that portray the issue with integrity, honesty, meaningfulness, and real-world accuracy.
From abstracted, light-hearted, gritty, to jaw-dropping films laced with cliffhangers, this list covers some of the best and relatable movies about mental health. They cover some of the everyday experiences of 1 in every 5 Americans living with a diagnosable mental illness.
12 Amazing Movies About Mental Illness and Mental Health
- Inside Out – 2015
Inside Out may be a candy-colored kid-friendly Pixar animation, but it nonetheless carries an important allegory of mental health. The quirky movie is an exquisite exploration of emotions that children and adults alike encounter every day. In fact, one article published in the British Journal of General Practice recommends Inside Out to both doctors and patients—owing to its powerful message disguised as a children’s film.
The mental health movie personifies the emotions that rule the conscience of Riley, who is an 11-year-old girl processing the confusion and chaos of adjusting to a new life. Fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and joy try to help Riley as her world is rocked when they move to San Francisco.
The film acts as a visual representation of how our emotions work together to shape our personalities and perspective of the world around us. It reminds us that all emotions—including sadness and fear—play an important part in what it means to live a full life.
Fair warning (if you haven’t watched the film); Inside Out is a tearjerker!
- Joker – 2019
What is a list of movies about mental illness without mentioning one of the most polarizing comic book characters whose very existence is a psychological journey? The 2019 version of Joker—played by Joaquin Phoenix—gives a fresh, more relatable take on the iconic Batman archvillain.
Joker is simply an honest look at the everyday struggles of people with mental illnesses, which is not something that’s said often about a comic book film. Perhaps the issue of Arthur Fleck (aka. Joker) spiraling into a path of violence unfairly stands out, but there’s more to the movie. It especially covers the challenges of not having a social support system with surgical precision.
But we must admit that Phoenix’s performance played a key role in the message delivery and success of the film. He expertly encapsulated the nitty-gritty nuances that characterize people grappling with mental illnesses. Joker shows us that mental health struggles are complex.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower – 2012
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age mental health movie that does an exemplary job of highlighting the cycle of anxiety and childhood trauma.
The 2012 film follows the never-ending sense of anxiety that clouds Charlie (Logan Lerman)—a socially awkward young man traversing life in high school. From suppressing emotions related to the abuse he suffered early on in his life, staying in a psychiatric hospital, to living with untreated PTSD—the film masterfully highlights his mental health journey in a moving and enlightening manner.
Charlie realistically encompasses the inner turmoil that so many people in society go through while battling trauma and other mental health illnesses.
- Benny and Joon – 1993
Funny, romantic, and deep—Benny and Joon is arguably one of the most refreshing schizophrenia movies of the last few decades. Its appeal stems partly from the winning team of lead performers and partly from its message that someone with a mental health illness can have a healthy romantic relationship.
The mental health movie is based around the lives of the schizophrenic Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson)—who lives with her brother Benny (Aidan Quinn)—and her romantic relationship with Sam (Johnny Depp).
Benny and Joon covers the prejudice and misconceptions that surround mental health. It dispels the notion that people with mental health problems or developmental disabilities are incapable of maintaining a happy, loving, and healthy relationship.
Sam and Joon get their fairy tale ending (i.e., they’re pictured using an iron to make grilled cheese sandwiches)—and so can anyone with mental health illness.
- Silver Linings Playbook – 2012
Silver Linings Playbook was one of the easiest picks for this list of movies about mental illness—and for obvious reasons. The late-night romance, which stars Bradley Cooper (Pat) and Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), delves deep into the topic of mental health.
At the start of the movie, Pat has recently been discharged from a mental health facility for his bipolar disorder after getting into a physical altercation with a guy who had an affair with his wife. Tiffany, who has an unnamed mental health illness, offers to help Pat get back with his wife if he agrees to participate in a dance competition with her.
Silver Linings Playbook explores the impact of mental health on relationships, realities of treatment, and how unhealthy coping mechanisms can wreak havoc on the patient’s life. All in all, it’s a great and moving movie to watch on a Saturday night while curled up on your couch (bonus points if you’re a Jennifer Lawrence or Bradley Cooper fan).
- Girl, Interrupted – 1999
What does the derogatory term “crazy” really mean? What is the borderline? Girl, Interrupted is a 1999 psychological thriller that highlights how women with mental health illness as misunderstood and often regarded as hysterical. The topic is covered via the lenses of Susanna (Winona Ryder).
After dabbling in self-harm and being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Susanna is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. There she meets a group of girls with their own ‘demons to fight’—including Polly ((schizophrenia), Lisa (antisocial personality disorder), Janet (anorexia), Daisy (OCD), and Georgina (pathological liar).
Despite their different diagnoses, these young girls share a lot in common and Susanna deems them relatable. It’s through them that she finds herself and the fog in her life is lifted. According to a quote from the mental health movies, “Crazy isn’t being broken, or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me… amplified.”
In a way, Girl, Interrupted offers a silver lining to people living with diagnosable mental health problems. It shows that the problem is just an interruption in their lives—and things will get better eventually.
- Black Swan – 2010
Black Swan is a psychological thriller like Girl, Interrupted—only darker. This is one of those enchanting movies about mental illness that is a portrayal of the tortured mind of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). As a professional dancer, she faces a ton of issues and pressure in a quest for perfection.
Her initial façade of being ‘okay’ comes crashing on her as she turns to self-harm as a coping mechanism. Nina is seen compulsively scratching her, hallucinating chronically, and depriving herself of food.
The message in the Black Swan is relatable to a lot of teens and adults in the current age of social media proliferation. A lot of people find the warped mind of Nina Sayers relatable as they strive for perfection, recognition, and fame. If left unchecked, this viewpoint can harm a person’s mind—leading to a host of mental health issues.
- Good Will Hunting – 1997
Good Will Hunting is sincere, funny, light-hearted, inspiring, critically-acclaimed and it boasts of an impressive Oscar-winning cast. It’s one of the few movies about mental illness that portray the mental health struggles of a patient and his/her interactions with a therapist in a meaningful, authentic manner.
Matt Damon plays Will Hunting, an exceptionally brilliant young man working as a janitor at MIT. His intelligence and unique abilities come to light when he solves a complex math problem that impresses Professor Gerald Lambeau—who makes it his mission to ensure Will’s potential come to fruition.
But after Will is arrested and at risk of jail time, Professor Lambeau negotiates for leniency. Will is instead asked to attend therapy with the unconventional Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). It’s through their interactions that we learn more about Will’s troubled childhood, which was marred by trauma and depression.
It’s one of the best mental health movies if you’re into something fun—yet thought-provoking.
- A Beautiful Mind – 2001
Few schizophrenia movies—if any—are as iconic and relatable as A Beautiful Mind. The biographical drama is based on the brilliant mind and life of the famed American mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr (played by Russel Crowe).
While his discoveries are poised to revolutionize his field and the reach of modern Economic theory, Nash is hindered by a slowly developing mental illness. He suffers from paranoid schizophrenia that causes his relationships to crumble. But A Beautiful Mind does not portray Nash as the stereotypical violent and unpredictable schizophrenic—he is actually seen as a smart, sweet, and sometimes awkward man.
The ‘oomph’ factor in the mental health movie is how it manages to interpret Nash’s suffering and feelings in an honest and sympathetic way. But don’t worry, A Beautiful Mind has a good ending—as our beloved intellect gradually recovers from the mental illness.
- Melancholia – 2011
Melancholia is a movie about mental illness that’s widely regarded as a masterpiece for its awe-inspiring cinematography and engaging narrative. It realistically paints the thought-process and emotional numbness that characterizes depression.
The sci-fi drama stars Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a character who sabotages her wedding before descending into depression. Her struggles are only compounded by a rather dysfunctional family. Justine’s health deteriorates to a point that she is unfazed by whatever happens around her—including a rogue planet dubbed Melancholia that’s heading straight for earth, posing an existential risk.
Melancholia is awesome, frightening, and stunningly gorgeous at the same time. It’s a fear-based film that will live in your memory for a while.
- The Soloist – 2009
People living with schizophrenia are often misunderstood—and even shunned by society and their social support system. This is the premise of The Soloist, which is a schizophrenia movie based on the true story of the gifted musician Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx).
Initially admitted to the prestigious Juilliard School, Mr. Ayers starts experiencing strange obsessions, rapid speech, tangential thoughts, social, withdrawal, waves of paranoia, and other signs that mark untreated schizophrenia. While performing in the streets as a homeless man, Ayers is discovered by Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.)—who’s a journalist for the Los Angeles Times.
The Soloist portrays schizophrenia in a precise, truthful, and thoughtful manner—including the toll the mental illness has on both the patient and people around them. It unfurls the complex condition and how it does not discriminate. The film delivers a sobering education on the scarcity of medical attention and lack of coverage for Americans living with schizophrenia.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 1975
Ask a cinephile to name a few movies about mental illness and there’s a high chance that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will be the first pick. The hint is even in the name ‘Cuckoo’. The landmark film is primarily set in a psychiatric institution—whereby it exposes the real-life experiences of patients.
Jack Nicholson takes the lead role by the horns as the rebellious R.P. McMurphy. He is transferred to a mental institution after serving time in a prison work camp. At the hospital, McMurphy interacts with all sorts of interesting characters—including William Redfield, Sydney Lassick, Will Sampson, and Louise Fletcher.
The film is edgy and profoundly disturbing at times—but also fun to watch. Such is the brilliance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that the U.S. Library of Congress preserved it in the National Film Registry—quoting the film as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”