December 19, 2018

By Matthew Boyle

Depicting mental illness on screen is not always easy. For some directors, the temptation to embellish or exaggerate symptoms of mental illness for the sake of entertainment leads to inaccurate and sometimes offensive portrayals that only serve to strengthen stereotypes. Luckily with film and television doing a better job of highlighting the importance of mental health, more and more filmmakers are making an effort to display the truth about mental illness on-screen. Here are five films that address mental health in a thought provoking and appropriate way.

The Aviator (2004)

The Aviator tells the story of Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he builds his fortune and struggles with increasingly intrusive symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Director Martin Scorsese went to great lengths to depict Hughes in an accurate manner. The audience witnesses Hughes’ rise as a filmmaker, but as his fortunes and ventures grow, we begin to see the harmful ways that OCD can manifest itself, limit a person’s life and drive others to estrangement. As the film goes on, his symptoms worsen. Initially, Hughes carries his own bar of soap around and refuses to drink milk from an opened bottle. By the end of the film, he refuses to appear in public and washes his hands until they bleed. Overall, the film is a realistic portrayal of one man’s decades-long struggle with OCD.

Melancholia (2012)

Melancholia is sci-fi drama that explores themes of depression, anxiety, family, environmental stresses and more through the lens of two characters. The first is Justine, a lonely and unhappy women who is attempting to drown her depression out with an outrageously lavish wedding. The second is Claire, Justine’s sister, a controlling and anxiety-prone woman. When scientists announce that a rogue planet named Melancholia is going to collide with Earth, Claire and Justine handle the situation in different ways. For Justine, the imminent approach of death provides her with solace. For Claire, the fact that death is imminent fills her with a sense of anxiety and feelings of futility. The film  offers viewers a unique glimpse of what depression and anxiety can look and feel like in the face of impending disaster.

Still Alice (2014)

Still Alice follows a linguistics professor, Alice, as she struggles with the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Played by Julianne Moore, Alice suffers through the heartbreak and frustrations of the disease in gut-wrenching detail. Initially, Alice begins forgetting words, names and locations but gradually stops being able to recognize her own family members until she requires full-time care. Eventually, several of her children cannot bear to deal with the emotional pain of seeing their mother in such condition and stop visiting. This movie is not for the faint of heart. The audience witnesses Alice’s life slowly getting ripped away from her brain, leading her to contemplate suicide. She gives a speech in the film that attempts to highlight the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s disease and the need for more support, both fiscal and emotional.

To The Bone (2017)

To The Bone was written and directed by Marti Noxon, starring Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves. The movie follows a 20-year-old college dropout, Ellen, who is living with anorexia. It provides a hauntingly realistic and devasting depiction of anorexia. Ellen goes through inpatient programs to try and recover from her condition but has problems making progress. In addition to anorexia, the film also addresses the grief and sadness related to losing a parent when Ellen goes to see her mother who is near death. Ellen’s talk with her mother inspires her to embrace her treatment program and move forward with recovery as she continues to seek a solution to her condition.

Manchester by the Sea (2017)

Manchester by the Sea is an Oscar-nominated film that was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and features Casey Affleck. The film follows the story of Lee Chandler as he struggles with depressive episodes. During the film, Lee’s brother dies from a heart attack and Lee becomes the legal guardian to his nephew. Throughout the film, you see that Lee also had struggles with addiction and suicidality because of his tragic past. Substance use and depression are two mental health issues that are addressed in the film, however Chandler’s nephew is instrumental in helping him to recover from these conditions.
As we continue to spread awareness and understanding about the realities of mental illness, these films can serve as useful tools for introducing the general public to the struggles people living with mental illness have to face. Through this exposure, there is the hope that we can reduce the stigma and discrimination against people affected by these conditions.

Matthew Boyle is Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a Louisville based drug and alcohol rehab center. Matthew has been working in the healthcare space for seven years with a recent emphasis on substance abuse disorder and recovery. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Duke University in 2011.

Submit To The NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.


NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).