Hollywood has long held a tricky relationship with the representation of mental health in cinema, with attitudes to such widespread issues having only recently improved in the 21st century industry. Now, audiences demand a better grasp of mental health issues from modern movies, particularly with such issues as anxiety, depression and more becoming something of a global epidemic.
Often this comes from a place of sheer ignorance, with the producers and scriptwriters of Hollywood failing to do the appropriate research into such aforementioned issues to devise an authentic story, whilst others simply take the stereotypical mannerisms of mental health sufferers to create their offensive portrayals.
Of course, this isn’t true for the whole spectrum of global cinema, however, with several filmmakers such as Joachim Trier, Abbas Kiarostami, Miloš Forman, Charlie Kaufman and Adrian Lyne, having created accurate portrayals of mental health issues on screen. Looking into five of the best, and five of the worst, examples of mental health depiction in cinema, take a look at our comprehensive list, below.
The best mental health depictions in cinema:
Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)
Cinema doesn’t have to strictly stick to the realms of drama to accurately reflect the struggles of mental health issues, with Adrian Lyne’s disturbing horror film Jacob’s Ladder providing a compelling view on the effects of PTSD. Telling the story of a postal worker and a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by flashbacks of his previous marriage, time at war and the recent death of his son, Lyne’s film is no easy watch, but it’s certainly an accurate one.
Excellently portrayed by Tim Robbins, the film well translated the horrors and hallucinations someone with PTSD endures day-to-day, showing the mental and physical distress among other symptoms.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975)
Widely celebrated as one of the greatest movies of the late 20th century, Miloš Forman’s 1975 classic, adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, tells the story of a criminal who pleads insanity and is admitted to a mental institution where the scales of power are totally off-balance. Whilst the lead character, played by Jack Nicholson, doesn’t actually suffer from any mental illnesses himself, several of the supporting characters do, and the mistreatment of the whole psychiatric ward is well understood.
Whilst featuring characters who suffer from epilepsy, muteness and anxiety, the strongest aspect of the film is how it depicts life for those living under such an oppressive system, imprisoning free-thinking individuals.
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011)
Having found recent success with the release of The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier rose to prominence in the late 2000s with such films as Reprise, Louder than Bombs and Oslo, August 31st. Tackling depression and suicidal thoughts, the Norwegian drama tells the story of Anders, a young recovering drug addict, who visits Oslo for a job interview and to catch up with long-lost friends.
The struggle of the central character creates the framework for Trier’s incredible story, with his inability to cope becoming a shared experience between him and the viewer. It’s a complicated character study, and one handled with masterful accuracy.
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
American filmmaker Charlie Kaufman has long been interested in the complex maze of one’s own mental health journey, with the screenwriter and director having made such cerebral films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Anomalisa. Arguably, it is his complicated, postmodern drama Synecdoche, New York that is his most complicated project.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film itself is a complicated look into the life of a theatre director whose marriage and personal life fall apart. Creating a gigantic artistic project that involves recreating much of New York in a giant set, Kaufman explores schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder in the lead character, despite his condition never being fully diagnosed in the film.
Broad and complicated, Kaufman’s film is brimming with ideas, with a constant focus on an accurate portrayal of mental health at its centre.
Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
Popularly known as one of the greatest Iranian filmmakers of all time Abbas Kiarostami has made his fair share of modern greats, including Ten and Close-Up. In Taste of Cherry Kiarostami follows the story of a man who drives his truck around, in search of someone who will bury him under a cherry tree after he commits suicide. Winning the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Kiarostami’s film shows one of the greatest depictions of loneliness and depression.
Channelling empathy better than many iconic filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami’s film puts you in the passenger seat of the protagonist’s truck and allows you to discover their personality over time, revealing a damaged soul at the heart.
The worst mental health depictions in cinema:
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Undoubtedly one of the worst movies the iconic filmmaker Martin Scorsese has ever made, this psychological thriller, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, tells the story of a US Marshal investigating the disappearance of a murderer from a hospital for the criminally insane. Spoiler alert: it turns out that the protagonist himself is the murderer in a somewhat foreseeable twist, with the moment providing many inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
Hitting the mark with several mental illness movie clichés, including the ‘violent mother’ and an ‘it was all in his head’ finale, Shutter Island does little to explore the actual delusions of the protagonist, making the whole plot structure crumble as a result.
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
Though widely celebrated, and the recipient of an Academy Award for Jennifer Lawrence, the depiction of bipolar disorder in David O. Russell’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook is rather underrepresented. Telling the story of two unlikely lovers, a man suffering from bipolar who has just been released from a mental health facility and a woman struggling with depression, who come together through dance, whilst strides are made for good characterisation, the final result falls embarrassingly short.
As if dance is the main cure to mental health problems, the majority of both characters’ lives are solved after entering a dance competition, making for a reductive answer to a complicated life problem.
Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996)
Hollywood is clearly a fan of simplistic depictions of mental health issues, with Edward Norton receiving an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an altar boy who is accused of murdering a priest. Defended in court by Richard Gere’s Martin, Norton’s character eventually gets away with the crime, eventually revealing to Martin and the audience that his mental health condition was simply a ruse to get a more lenient sentence.
Perpetuating the idea that anyone with a mental health issue can manipulate those around them by switching off and on their unique perception of life, Hoblit’s film presents some insensitive answers to complicated questions.
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Whilst Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slasher classic remains one of the most influential horror films of all time, there are inconsistencies throughout his movie that are outdated in its approach to mental health issues. Telling the story of Norman Bates, the strange owner of the Bates Motel, Hitchcock’s film reveals him to be the killer in the thrilling climax, duping the audience into believing it was his mother instead of the man himself.
The problem with Hitchcock’s depiction comes from sheer misrepresentation, with those suffering from dissociative identity disorder not having a personality that is self-aware of other personalities in their head. Furthermore, whilst Psycho’s Norman Bates is a frequently aggressive man, in real life, those who suffer from dissociative identity don’t tend to experience violent tendencies.
The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)
For a filmmaker who enjoys toying with the technical and narrative possibilities of cinema, M. Night Shyamalan has never been known for his delicate screenplays, often leaving dialogue and characterisation as a mere afterthought. As a result, several of his characters suffer from misrepresentation, with the 2015 horror movie, The Visit, demonstrating the worst of this tendency.
Telling the story of two siblings who become frightened by their grandparents’ actions whilst visiting them on vacation, Shyamalan doesn’t bother to delve deep into the psychiatric illnesses that the elderly relatives are suffering from. Failing to take into account the cognitive impairments the grandparents are suffering from, Shyamalan also uses schizophrenia as an excuse to give the characters aggressive and murderous personas, which is far from the reality of such an issue.