Ten Movies Depicting Mental Illness  » 

Posted on March 23rd, 2009 at 9:28 pm by


Ten Movies Depicting Mental Illness

Mental illness and movies have always been connected for not only commercial reasons but also those of aesthetic in nature. Each individual, however strong they may claim to be, goes through psychological disturbances at some point in their lives, whether they realize it or they don’t. This is perhaps why movies across nations have depicted mental illness in commercial films.

The success of these films also stand as testimonies to the hard hitting fact, that the viewer relates to the character afflicted with mental illness or trauma. Since the beginning of International cinema, madness as a concept has done well both in terms of critical acclaim and box office success. Here are some movies which have left an impact on the critics, audience and movie lovers through the decades.

Girl Interrupted, James Mangold – 1999


Girl Interrupted tells the story of Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosed Susan, who is disillusioned with human relationships and more so with herself. The brief but bitter-sweet experience at the institution helps her forge new relationships and value human life and not negate it. Perhaps the death of the girl who was abused sexually by her father leaves Susan (Winona Ryder) shaken. However, the incidence forces her to question her thoughts, her existence and helps her move ahead in life, though it isn’t clear if she left the institution “treated” as the institution claimed prior to her discharge.

Sybil, Daniel Petrie – 1976

Sybil, explores the many personalities the title character lives with, a case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Sally manages to capture the nuances of the different personalities that lurk behind her persona. This movie helped further research in to Dissociative Identity Disorder which was known as Multiple Personality Disorder and Split Personality at various times in history. Her harrowing tale of sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences are the tale of millions of people, men and women who suffer from dissociation.

Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood – 1971


Play Misty for Me was directed by Clint Eastwood and the movie also starred him as a radio jockey who is the target of an obsessed female fan. His stalker Evelyn Draper shows signs of both Borderline Personality Disorder and Psychopathy. The movie encouraged and inspired many other filmmakers to base their plots around an obsessive female stalker.

Committed, William A. Levey – 1988

Jennifer O’Neill stars in this eerie and frightening movie “Committed” where she plays the role of a new psychiatric nurse that applies in a renowned institution, only to find that she has committed herself to the institution as a patient and not as a nurse. The movie reveals the darker nature of institutionalization and life in asylums, which may always not be how it is pictured.

The Hours, Stephen Daldry – 2002

Virginia Woolf was one of the greatest English authors who suffered from severe depression and angst, throughout her writing career. She committed suicide by drowning herself in River Ouse. The movie stars Nicole Kidman who plays the role of Virginia Woolf. However, “The Hours” is not specifically about Virginia Woolf but about the novel she wrote “Mrs. Dallowway” and how 3 women from different generations are linked to that particular book. Each one goes through depression; suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder and encounter loneliness.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Lasse Hallström – 1993

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role of mentally challenged Arnie in a small American town. The movie not only explores the difficulties of caring for the mentally challenged but also that of being mentally challenged in a small town where resources and infrastructure are limited, apart from the cruel treatment rural people have to offer. The movie may not particularly be about mental illness but provides a glimpse into the relationship between the caregiver (Gilbert played by Johnny Depp) and the patient, Arnie.

Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne – 1987

In one of the classic movies concerning stalking, sexual obsession and vulnerability, Fatal Attraction provides a glimpse into the mind of a person who experiences Borderline Personality Disorder. The movie resembles Play Misty for Me but the Glenn Close’s performance is something that needs standing ovations. Her gradual descent into madness begins with her obsession with the younger and successful Damiel Gallagher, played by Michael Douglas. The movie has been cited as one of the best examples of Borderline Personality Disorder in movie history.

Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese – 1980

Raging Bull was released in 1980 and Robert De Niro plays the role of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, who is a jealous and disappointed man. The movie is based on the memoir Raging Bull: My Story, and explores sad-masochism, clinical anger, and sexual jealousy. The movie explores the life of a successful boxer whose personal life is anything but successful, thanks to his mood swings, irrational behavior and misconduct. It also explores the themes of domestic violence and sexual inadequacy, which are usually the reason for many mental illnesses.

Rain Man, Barry Levinson – 1988

Rain Man was another critically acclaimed and commercially successful film about two brothers, one normal and other autistic savant. It was a tale about younger normal brother learning to connect to his older brother who is different (autistic) for his own greed. But the innocence and talent of his brother cures him of all the greed instead. Anomalies, materialistic need and greed of normal man were pitted against emotional, limited and innocent world of autistic man.  Also this was the first time an institutionalized person entered a normal world and the movie did show a possibility of more inclusive society. Dustin Hoffman played the role of autistic Raymond, while younger selfish yuppie was portrayed by Tom Cruise.

Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard – 2001

Beautiful Mind is a movie based on real life story of a renowned genius mathematician John Nash who overcame paranoid schizophrenia and all hallucinatory phases and went on to become Nobel Laureate in Economics. Russell Crowe played the role of John Nash who learnt to ignore ‘demons’ who visited him during his psychotic attacks. The movie portrayed real life dilemma of patients suffering from mental disorders who have to depend on drugs which affect their very mental and physical faculties. It was inspiring to see genius bidding farewell to his ‘demon’ friends and ignoring them and coping up with his mental condition without drugs.

Vlad & Salazar

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