Mental health conditions are often stigmatized and barely ever accurately depicted in modern media; cinematic portrayals of mental illness can be overplayed and drowning in stereotypes, making those of us that suffer feel horrendously misrepresented. Nevertheless, along with the degrading, insensitive enactments of mental illness, some exceptions approach the delicate topic with maturity, consideration, and insight.
For members of an audience that are diagnosed with a mental health condition, representation is a crucial element to reaching a sensitive understanding in regards to the disastrous and long-standing effects of living with a progressively worsening condition. Here are some respectable cinematic portrayals of mental illness that capture the experience with precision and empathy.
Ratched (2020) – Dissociative Personality Disorder
Ratched is a suspenseful drama series that premiered on Netflix in September 2020. Its premise follows Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson), a nurse who begins to infiltrate a leading psychiatric hospital and bend its operations to her will. Within Lucia State Hospital, many patients are suffering from various mental health conditions.
Sophie Okonedo portrays Charlotte Wells, a patient at Lucia State with dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder, which is diagnosed by the maintenance of at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states.
As Ratched progresses, Okonedo delivers a convincing performance of the complicated behavioral disorder. Another compelling cinematic portrayal of this specific mental illness can be seen in Split (2016), wherein James McAvoy’s character, Kevin Crumb, maintains 23 distinctive personalities.
To The Bone (2017) – Anorexia Nervosa
Premiering in 2017 on Netflix, To The Bone tells the heartbreaking story of Ellen (Lily Collins), an unruly 20-year-old anorexic girl who spent the better part of her teenage years in various recovery programs. Determined to find a solution, her dysfunctional family agrees to send her to a group home for youths. Ellen must discover for herself how to attempt self-acceptance.
Ellen suffers from an eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa, wherein you feel a need to keep your weight as low as possible and will achieve this by eating very little or missing meals. To The Bone depicts an eating disorder with divine sensitivity, but never shies away from hard-hitting moments that shed a light on the severity of the mental illness and the devastation it can cause.
Jessica Jones (2015-2019) – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Another Netflix hit, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, chronicles the life of Jessica Jones, a former superhero turned alcoholic private investigator. After an incident involving a mind-controlling psychopath known as Kilgrave (David Tennant) results in an unwitting murder, Jessica begins to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, feeling very anxious and difficulty sleeping.
Throughout Jessica Jones, its titular protagonist relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks and experiences feelings of isolation and irritability for unintentionally committing a crime. Jessica feels wholly responsible, despite knowing that Kilgrave forced her to kill, which allows her PTSD to fester and riddle her with unbearable guilt. PTSD is a more common mental illness than it is commonly thought to be, so Krysten Ritter’s cinematic portrayal of mental illness from the perspective of a long-term sufferer is imperative to spreading awareness.
Joker (2019) – Antisocial Personality Disorder
Joker was a commercial success and global sensation when it was released in 2019. However, audiences may be unaware that what lies beneath The Joker’s sadistic and murderous tendencies is far more than a desire to harm.
DC Comics’ most notorious villain suffers from a mental illness called antisocial personality disorder, commonly associated with psychopathic tendencies within a fictional context. Joker is manipulative, deceitful, reckless, and otherwise emotionless and lacking empathy or remorse. He lacks guilt, blames others for his behavior, and repeatedly breaks the law.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a believable depiction of antisocial personality disorder, especially since it manifests itself as an important character trait for The Joker and further insight regarding his motives. Joker even mentions the stigmatization of mental illness. Arthur Fleck writes a passage in his joke journal that reads: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Donnie Darko (2001) – Schizophrenia
Set in October 1988, Donnie Darko follows its titular character, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a troubled teenager who narrowly escapes a bizarre accident. He has visions of Frank, a mysterious figure in a rabbit costume, who informs him that the world will end in just over 28 days. Frank begins to manipulate Donnie to commit several crimes. Donnie Darko suffers from schizophrenia, which is a mental illness that causes someone to see, hear or believe things that are not real.
Due to his confused thinking, Donnie blurs the lines of morality and begins to struggle to understand the difference between right and wrong. Frank uses the illness against him, which is an on-the-nose example of how someone suffering from mental illness can be mistreated.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – Bipolar Disorder
Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy-drama that follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man with bipolar disorder. Pat is released from a psychiatric hospital and moves back in with his parents. He is determined to win back his estranged wife and rebuild his life. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extreme mood swings, usually fluctuating between mania and depression. They are described as episodes of extreme highs and lows.
Pat has periods of sleeplessness and paranoia, hatches wild plans to win back his wife despite her restraining order, and resists taking medication. He blurts out his uncensored thoughts, flies into hair-triggered rages, and hallucinates when stressed. Very few cinematic portrayals of mental illness depict bipolar disorder because while it is a more common condition, it always seems to be swept under the proverbial rug. Silver Linings Playbook deftly and accurately portrays bipolar disorder.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009) – Depression
In World’s Greatest Dad, Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is a high school teacher whose son accidentally kills himself. Subsequently, Clayton writes a fake suicide note to evade scandal, which is published in the school paper. Lance claims the literary renown he always dreamed of and continues the ploy by writing a diary. However, it becomes explicitly clear that while his son committed suicide, intentionally or not, it is Lance who suffers from severe depression.
Depression is a low mood that lasts for weeks or months and severely affects daily lives. Symptoms include feeling unhappy or hopeless, low self-esteem, and finding no pleasure in activities that one would usually enjoy. Having lost his son, it is perfectly reasonable for Lance to plummet into a deep depression and mask his sadness by coveting the fame he so desperately desires.
Juno (2008) – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
In 2008, the drama-comedy, Juno, introduced its audience to an accurate representation of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Its premise revolves around Juno, a social misfit, who protects herself with a caustic wit, but an unplanned pregnancy begins to drastically change her life.
Juno MacGraff, the titular character of this 2007 coming-of-age story, often acts or speaks without thinking — frequently with uncomfortable or even life-changing results. She is immensely confident in herself — a challenge for many with ADHD — but struggles to control her impulsive actions.
ADHD is a condition that includes symptoms such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Someone suffering from ADHD will have a short attention span, constantly fidget, and act without thinking. Elliot Page, who portrays Juno, provides an essential cinematic portrayal of mental illness that would otherwise go unseen. Like bipolar disorder, ADHD is rarely mentioned or addressed as much as it should be.
As mental illness continues to plague youths and adults alike, the media should take the responsibility of portraying these disorders for those that are suffering silently without the luxury of informing others of their personal battle. If we all made an effort to understand and accept mental illness, the world would be a better place.