Mental illness and the movies: Films that break the stigma of mental health

Movies often offer the chance to teach viewers something new and raise questions about a particular subject. Mental illness—one of the most stigmatized medical ailments—is one of those frequently featured subjects. With the Academy Awards this evening, here are takes from three UC Health psychiatrists on their picks for the most accurate representations of mental illness in film.

From Peirce Johnston, MD, associate professor of psychiatry:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: This production is the third film from Charles Kaufman, who is arguably the most psychologically interesting American filmmaker today. The movie stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as an ill-matched couple in love, and the story examines what happens after their break-up. Separately, each enlists the services of a doctor who offers to erase from memory all traces of their relationship. This is a challenging and exhilarating examination of depression, bereavement and the consequences that arise when one attempts to avoid the grieving process.

Lars and the Real Girl: This film is a powerful movie, heartbreaking but ultimately inspiring, about the power of one family and their small-town community’s response to loss. Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a young man who develops a delusional disorder after his sister-in-law becomes pregnant, echoing the loss of his own mother in childbirth when Lars was born. His delusion that a new mail-order doll is his girlfriend is gradually revealed to be his way of working through the loss of his mother and his worry about his sister-in-law. Instrumental in his journey is the intervention and wisdom of his family practice physician (played by Patricia Clarkson) and her ability to act as Lars’ psychotherapist—patiently working with Lars while also helping the entire community understand his unorthodox process. Moving and amusing, this film shows how a community that is willing to move beyond the stigma of mental illness can provide the very environment needed for healing.

From Stephen Benoit, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience:

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: I love this movie from a psychiatric perspective because it blends mental health problems due to morbid obesity, with autism spectrum disorder, developmental life stages and family dynamics all into one film. Arnie, the youngest son, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a teenager with autism spectrum disorder and low intellectual functioning. The mother Bonnie, previously a thin woman, is now morbidly obese and hasn’t left the house in seven years.  She appears to be suffering from a mood disorder, likely major depressive disorder which research shows is common in the morbidly obese population. In fact, the Grape family reflects the current increase in adult children remaining or returning home to assist in care for younger children or because of their own financial inability to leave.  Layered on top of this complexity, the family can also be defined as “unequipped” for both Arnie’s cognitive impairments and Bonnie’s morbid obesity. It’s a good portrayal of how families are often diverse in their needs, and that working with any family is unique and not a ‘by the book’ situation. Coincidentally, this movie was also Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Academy Award nomination.

From Cal Adler, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience:

Forbidden Planet: Considered one of the great science fiction movies of the 1950s that went on to inspire many others, Forbidden Planet features Leslie Nielsen as a commander who leads a team of scientists to find out what happened to the space colony on planet Altair IV. While Forbidden Planet doesn’t address a specific psychiatric condition, it includes psychiatric concepts that are integral to the plot of this classic science fiction movie – but we won’t give away any spoilers here.

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