Mental Health Movies

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As an active supporter of mental health awareness, I love this month. 1 in 4 Americans have or have had a mental health disorder. Why is something so prevalent so misunderstood? We don't talk about it. We don't really scknolwedge it. Well, as an activist, I have a list of movies I like to show people to start the conversation. Life with a mental illness isn't all Psycho or Fight Club. So here are some great movies to start your conversation!

1) Inside Out

This is probably the best movie to start your mental health education. It explains a lot of things in really simplistic terms. The creators worked closely with psychologists to develop it. Not only is it designed to help people get the basics, it uses actual science as its base. What's even better? It's actually working. I worked at the Disney Store  for a while around the time the movie came out. Kids would come in and explain their feelings in terms of this movie. That is huge! When I was a kid, we never talked about that kind of thing. The brain is complex, and it helps make talking about it easier. Trying to explain dementia to a kid? Talk about how the shelves of the person's long term memory have been damaged. Is someone under stress and moody? Talk about how that emotion is controlling your headquarters. It's great seeing all the ways families have used this to start a discussion about mental health.

A lot of people say that this movie is childish. They're wrong. It's simple. It gives you the basic tools to start having conversations about mental health. We live in a world where mental illness is confusing. You can't see it. It's not consistent. No two people show it the exact same way. People don't like what they can't understand. This movie is the first step to getting yourself or someone you love to understand it. Plus it gives you some great terminology. Even my Dad talks about his control panel in headquarters. Definitely a must for those who are super new to the idea of talking about it.


2) Dead Poet's Society

The first time I saw Dead Poet's Society I was in high school. We watched it in class, and I'm pretty sure there wasn't a dry eye in the room. It let to a really great discussion of depression and suicide. To this day, it is probably one of my favorite movies for starting that discussion. Mental health is important when you are growing up, and Dead Poets hits the nail right on the head. Identity is such a big part of mental illness. When you lose your concept of yourself, the world becomes very different. Very rarely do you see suicide handled in the context of identity. It's so easy to use it as a dramatic effect. But Dead Poet's society does it in the terms of the character's loss of hope.

You even get a stunningly realistic view of the aftermath. The blame game and guilt of the survivors is perfectly captured. Simultaneously blaming yourself and looking for a scape goat is incredibly real. There is a trend of school administrators brushing off the event instead of making internal changes to better assist those with mental illness. Dead Poet's Society urges people to talk about suicide. As the 11th leading cause of death in the world, it's important to learn the warning signs, support the fine arts, and encourage others to live authentically. This movie is a great way to get people to start thinking about that. 


3) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

How do I even begin to explain why this is important? It deals with the autism spectrum, grief, trauma, fear, and more. The main character, Oskar, is a ten year old boy on the autism spectrum. As an audience, you see him and his mother deal with the tragedy of his father dying in 9/11. Oskar is different, but he's lovable. When he interacts with the world, he does it in his own way. And instead of finding it annoying, you cheer for him. You watch as he fights over-stimulation. You cheer as he finds the courage to talk to strangers or go into closed spaces. What is really great about this movie is that it shows you what it's like. It's hard to truly understand what other people are going through. For most people, walking down a loud, crowded street is just annoying. For Oskar, it's psyhically painful. You experience the world through Oskar's eyes and ears. Some people may find it cheesy, but a lot of the time, that stems from the disbelief of mental health concerns. These are all very real experiences and emotions. When you put away your bias, and let the character show you what his world is like, it can really open your eyes to how hard it can be to live with a mental disorder.

Extra Credit: the book is just as good.

4) Silver Linings Playbook

I don't know if I am including this for people who are learning about mental illness, or for those who have it. Either way, it's one of the most honest depictions of living with a mental disorder. The rom-com has a format. You know (and secretly love) that in the end they're going to end up together. But the stuff in the middle-the crazy interactions, the emotional outbursts, the break downs- they're realistic. If 1 in 4 people are affected, why don't we know more people with mental illness? Because most people learn to live with their disorders. This movie beautifully displays high functioning, or at least semi-functioning, individuals learning to live and love with what they have. I honestly can't tell enough people to watch this. It's inspirational for people who have mental illness, and great for explaining it to those who don't. Plus there's the added bonus of watching Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper dance. Who doesn't want that?


5) It's Kind Of A Funny Story

The basic plot is that a depressed kid admits himself into a psychiatric ward. And it's a comedy. Did you see that coming? Probably not. This movie takes all of those dehumanizing stereotypes and shoves them right out the door. It gets to explore so many different types of mental illness while also posing some great questions about what it means to live with mental illness. How often do you get to watch a movie about mental illness and laugh at the same time? It really highlights the positives of self-acceptance, especially in terms of finding friends who accept you. I love to compare this one to Dead Poet's Society. It's the light-hearted opposite. They have a lot of parallels with two completely different takes on the same topics. On top of it's rock star message, it has a great cast including Viola Davis and Zach Galifianakis. This is a must see for anyone.


6) Iron man 3

You read that right. Iron Man 3 is on my list. 

Tony Stark is everyone's favorite narcissist. He's funny. He's smart. He's rich. He's got a hot girlfriend. And he just happens to fight mega villains. But in Iron Man 3, Tony Stark struggles with PTSD from the events in the Avengers. It shows that mental illnesses can happen to anyone. From flashbacks, to avoidance of loved ones, to panic attacks, he's got all the symptoms. This movie has an appeal to a different audience than the ones above. When you recognize his PTSD, it makes his motivation is the following Avengers films so much easier to understand. His fears are what cause him to build Ultron, to look for regulation of their group, to feel guilt for all the lives lost. While ultimately he is still our favorite rich boy, he's changed. His mental health shaped who he became. This movie is great for helping people understand that PTSD comes from a variety of situations. It's also great for showing that people can hide their trauma. Not to mention, if you have someone in your life who doesn't want to sit down to watch something serious, this is a great way to start the conversation.


Bonus: Television

There are a lot of great shows and episodes that deal with mental health. I'm a super big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are so many example of mental illness, from Willow's struggle with grief to Buffy's return to earth. You don't pick an episode. You just watch the whole show. I don't know anyone who has watched it and come out with biases against mental illness. Not to mention it's just pure awesome.

Jessica Jones is literally a pure metaphor for sexual assault. Jessica's biggest weakness is her PTSD, which frequently manifests itself into alcoholism and guilt. Yes, there are super powers. Yeah, it's dark. But it's real. There is definitely a trigger warning for the whole show for anyone who has been raped, assaulted, or emotionally manipulated. But if you stick through it, it's worth it. If you have someone in your life who has been through something like that, watch this show then try to talk to them. 

Doctor Who may be the winner for perfect mental health in just one episode. Vincent and the Doctor takes the characters back in time to meet Vincent Van Gogh. Most people learn about his depression in school, but this episode explores it on a personal level. The end of the show is just absolutely hear-breaking and warming at the same time. It's only 45 minutes. You have time for that. 


Mental Health is incredibly important. Taking time to learn about it and be aware of signs could save a life. If you or anyone you know may be suffering from a mental illness, do your best to be supportive and give them the care that they need. To learn more about mental health and what you can do, click here to visit the US Department of Health's website. And remember, you're not alone.