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Top Oscar Awards Connect to Mental Illness

Academy Award winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne
Hathaway and Christoph Waltz (Photo: Disney ABC Television Group - Flickr)

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

The annual Academy Awards televised ceremonies in Hollywood are notorious for dragging on too long, while saving the best for last.

For people who stayed up late Sunday night, Feb. 24, they were able to see two of the top Oscar awards—for Best Actor and Best Actress—presented to movies with significant connections to themes of mental illness.

Daniel Day Lewis was honored as Best Actor for his leading role in Lincoln.

In real life, America’s 16th president struggled with depression—as detailed in the biography Lincoln's Melancholy, which makes the case that the struggle also helped to fuel his greatness as a leader. The movie focuses on Lincoln’s efforts during the Civil War to have Congress pass the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery. There no direct reference to depression, but Lewis’ performance shows a man who is at times weary and pessimistic, but also determined in his vision for the country. In film, the Lincoln also is shown sharing the grief of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, over the death of their 12-year-old son, Willie. (Later in life, Mrs. Lincoln would be institutionalized briefly for depression).

NAMI is currently honoring Lincoln in its “You Are Not Alone in This Fight” campaign of televised public service announcements.

Jennifer Lawrence was honored as Best Actress for her role in Silver Linings Playbook. The movie is a comedy in which a young man (played by Bradley Cooper, who was nominated for Best Actor), living with bipolar disorder, who after being released from a state psychiatric hospital, begins to rebuild his life.  He meets Lawrence, who has endured misfortunes of her own. As their relationship evolves, they find often hilarious paths to recovery.

After receiving her award Lawrence answered questions from reporters backstage, including a question about what the film means for people struggling with mental illness.

“I don't think that we're going to stop until we get rid of the stigma of mental illness—I know David won't, and I hope this helps,” she said. “It's just so - it's so bizarre how in this world you have to - if you have asthma, you take asthma medicine. If you have diabetes, you take diabetes medicine. If you have to take medication for your mind, there's such a stigma behind it.”

Only 22 years old, Lawrence is no stranger to movies with themes of mental illness. In 2010, she starred in Winter's Bone in a “breakthrough” role as a teenager who had to look after her mother, who lived with mental illness, as well as raise two younger siblings. She also played a supporting role in The Beaver, a film about the impact of a father’s depression on his family.

First Lady Michelle Obama appeared from the White House by remote television hook-up to announce the winner of the Best Picture Award—which went to Argo, about the rescue of six Americans during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

She noted that films often leave us with lessons—and her remarks had special resonance for individuals and families who live with mental illness.

“These movies,” she said, “taught us that love can endure against all odds and transform our minds in the most surprising ways. And they reminded us that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and fight hard enough and find the courage to believe in ourselves.”

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