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Martha May Olsen
Martha Marcy May Marlene stillvia YouTube

5 films that do a good job of exploring mental illness

Often glamourised and rarely portrayed accurately on-screen, these films endeavoured to explore psychological health well

Film doesn’t often do mental illness well. When it comes to Hollywood, the bigger the budget, often the more offensive the attempt. Whether it’s a release from 2015 or 1955, scripts are frequently terrible, insensitive and fairly inaccurate in their depictions of conditions, perpetuating negative stereotypes. Throughout cinematic history, the mental health patient has been assigned the stock murderer, the mad, or the bad. Or simply just sad, with no fuller context or exploration of how and why. And when it comes to comedy, illnesses are almost always trivialised for cheap laughs.

“In a lot of the films there is the underlying message that all the patient really needs is love and affection,” said Dr Van Velsen, a consultant psychiatrist who produced research on this topic. “There is a tendency in films to try and normalise mental illness by saying that patients don't need treatment, they need love. The audience gets the two extremes and what we are not getting are portrayals of people with chronic illness. Which, for anyone who has suffered with an ongoing mental issue, is beyond laughable.”

It is a dangerous and lazy regurgitation of ideas; meanwhile stigma surrounding mental health is still great. Instead, of duplications, we need sensitivity, research and some element of realism from our filmmakers.

However, there are a few rare cases that have managed to balance those three aspects and produce accurate or convincing exploration of mental illness.


Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, slips deeper and deeper into a severe type of depression. The Lars Von Trier film becomes increasingly claustrophobic as she takes on all the features associated with the black dog. No longer can she get pleasure from anything (even her wedding), and is drained of life, every limb dripping fatigue. Her depression is so severe that she even has a nap part way through the reception. As the film rolls into its dark second half, she speaks and moves painfully slowly, like a frail old woman, the psychomotor retardation typical of sufferers. Only someone who has suffered from depression could imagine a scene as accurately heartbreaking as the scene of her failing to get in the bath like an invalid or small child. Von Trier himself called this a “psychological disaster film” rather than a doomsday one and he wouldn’t be wrong. 


While schizophrenia is never explicitly mentioned, Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) suffers from a condition which mirrors it carefully. We often find her repeating and swirling around the same phrases and explanations and can’t live alone, instead relying on her brother as carer. Illusions scatter through her experience of day-to-day life, most memorably when she escapes with her lover, Sam, played by Johnny Depp. Here, Joon starts hearing voices and talks to herself as the episode hightens ending in her sobbing and telling the driver to stop. Whether she is wearing a snorkelling mask while blending cereal or being an impromptu traffic officer, instead of being insensitive, these little personal moments serve only to bring colour and life to her illness. The line is very thin between comedy and trivialising the seriousness of Joon’s state of mind but Masterson does a brilliant job of toeing the line. 


Sean Durkin’s scripting ensures all the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder are apparent and as such, Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen in her first film role, is halfway there to being entirely convincing before she’s even delivered a line. After living for a period of time in a sadistic cult that has sexually and emotionally abused her, as well as cutting her off from the world she knows, Martha re-experiences the traumas through flashbacks. The dullness – almost total numbness – she feels emotionally is present constantly. Never does she want to talk about the experiences she had in that cult. By blurring what is real, the past and present, the film forces the viewer to experience the confusion and mental blocks of Martha: the dissociation she would feel having PSTD.


Although there’s no labels are discussed and mental health is not the central tenet of the film, both Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) provide impeccable explorations into anxious and depressed behaviour. From his opening stroll on the beach, Joel displays characteristics of generalised anxiety disorder. He’s on edge and introverted, preferring routine to spontaneity and seeing it out of character to call in sick to get away. He feels the need to be “nice” to everyone and frequently regresses into his shell. Some have said Clem is a rare depiction of a borderline personality disorder sufferer and the couple’s relationship is an example of what can happen when a BDP sufferer and someone without the illness cohabit. The impulsive, wild nature of Clem juxtaposes with the mixture of addiction to the excitement of the relationship Joel feels to his quiet shirking of her personal characteristics.

THE HOURS (2002)

Fairly relentless in its bleak mood and serious subject matter, The Hours centres on Virginia Woolf's efforts to finish her novel Mrs Dalloway while battling with mental illness. The real Woolf suffered from an affective disorder, which modern critics now recognise as bipolar disorder with repeated bouts of depression and psychotic episodes. Living alongside this narrative, are Clarissa (Meryl Streep), and Laura (Julianne Moore) who both struggle with depressive symptoms to some degree. From Woolf, the married writer, struggling around the turn of the century, to Laura, a 1950s housewife without the autonomy to remove factors encouraging her illness, none of the women in any time live in a society equipped to fully understand and treat them. As such, they all spiral making for a harrowing watch. In fact, it’s so accurate in its portrayal of suicidal symptoms (and features scenes of suicide) it could be triggering for those who have dealt with this closely in some way.