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10 Films That Will Give You a Better Understanding of Mental Health

A little compassion and awareness can go a long way.
10 Films That Will Give You a Better Understanding of Mental Health
IMAGE Columbia Pictures
A little compassion and awareness can go a long way.

Despite more and more people coming forward about their experiences with mental illness and mental disorders, there’s still a stigma surrounding the conversation about mental health. Terms like “OCD” and "bipolar" are still regularly used to describe quirks like they’re funny and #relatable, when in truth, the disorders they refer to are more complicated and not a breeze to live with at all. Meanwhile, people with depression are often told to just "get over it" and "choose to be happy," unaware that it's a much more complicated (and scientifically-backed) process than it seems. 

A large part of the stigma around mental illness comes from a lack of awareness and understanding. It’s not always easy to explain what mentally ill people go through, but a little patience and compassion can go a long way. So this May, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, here are some movies that are able to capture the realities of mental illness with sincerity and respect.

1. Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Set in the late 1960s, this true story follows 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder), who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and sent to stay at a mental institution for troubled young women. She becomes immersed in the intense and intoxicating world cultivated by her fellow patients (played by Brittany Murphy, Clea DuVall, Elisabeth Moss, and an Oscar-winning Angelina Jolie), and must choose between staying lost inside or leaving to return to reality.

2. Loving Vincent (2017)

When a young man is sent to deliver the last letter of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, he begins a journey literally following in the late artist’s footsteps in hopes of understanding where he went and why he died. Each frame of this animated biographical drama (all 65,000 of them, including the credits) is a painting, done in the style of van Gogh himself. Some scenes even bring his iconic paintings to life. The movie’s greatest achievement, however, is its portrayal of Vincent’s mental illness—full of sympathy, heart, and honesty.

3. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the late Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is about a 16-year-old boy who, fed up with his adolescent trappings, checks himself into a psychiatric clinic. The youth wing may be closed, but he meets and forms a bond with his fellow patients anyway, including sarcastic Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and enigmatic Noelle (Emma Roberts). In his search for meds and, perhaps, the easy way out—nothing is ever easy, he realizes—he instead finds a purpose and some perspective. 

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4. Adam (2009)

Lonely electronics engineer Adam has Asperger syndrome, an autism disorder. When a young woman named Beth moves into his apartment building, Adam becomes infatuated with her, and although there is some initial awkwardness and they have trouble connecting, she decides to give him a chance. No depiction of autism in pop culture is perfect, and Adam certainly has its misgivings, but it’s a valiant effort at treating the subject with sensitivity, resulting in a touching story of human relationships and overcoming challenges and personal hurdles.

5. The Skeleton Twins (2014)

Twins Maggie and Milo (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in rare but perfectly executed dramatic roles), estranged for several years, both happen to attempt—and survive—suicide on the same day, leading them to reunite. Together, they face the choices and circumstances that led their paths astray and caused everything to go wrong, including an unhappy marriage and ill-advised first love. Along the way, they fix their strained relationship and come to terms with what they have. 

6. Welcome to Me (2014)

In another Kristen Wiig vehicle, Alice, a woman with BPD, wins a fortune through the lottery and uses it to produce her own talk show on a small struggling network. In the process, she goes off her medication and uses the show as a platform to broadcast her opinions, frustrations, and emotions, and to tell the story of her extraordinary, sometimes heartbreaking yet always interesting and full life.

7. Christine (2016)

In 1974, news reporter Christine Chubbuck became the first person to successfully commit suicide on a live television broadcast. The film follows the events leading to such a tragedy. As Christine, Rebecca Hall is magnetic, driven, and difficult, and her performance highlights an ambitious and talented young woman who had to grapple with loneliness, depression, and frustrations with her career.

8. Short Term 12 (2013)

Two years before gaining mainstream acclaim for her role in Room, Brie Larson shined in Short Term 12 as Grace, a supervisor at a foster care facility who is also struggling with personal demons and opening herself up to people who care about her. When she connects with a new resident, Grace begins to relive her own troubled past, and realizes she doesn’t have to be so tough or closed off to begin healing from her trauma. 

9. Ingrid Goes West (2017)

In need of a new start, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza at her best) moves to the West Coast and orchestrates a friendship with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an internet-famous socialite who seems to live inside a VSCO filter. As Ingrid continues to insert herself into Taylor’s glossy, Instagram-perfect world, the cracks in their friendship, their identities, and their lives begin to show. It's a deep, dark, and satirical look at how social media culture can affect our minds—it’s painful to watch, but it’s hard to look away.

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10. I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)

John Wayne Cleaver is a diagnosed sociopath who’s obsessed with brutal crime stories but doesn’t really want to live them out. He tries his best to overcome his homicidal tendencies, but when an actual serial killer begins terrorizing his town, he must lean into them to find the culprit and put an end to the killings. Sociopathy tends to be sensationalized in media, but here, it’s presented realistically, with wry humor that even becomes warm and endearing without being condescending.

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