21 Best Films That Explore Mental Illness

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Mental illness is on the rise. Millions suffer through various forms of mental illness ranging from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and more.

To best understand mental illness is to acknowledge the effects it has on a person… and the people around them.

Films are an excellent form of media to help us learn and understand the lived experience of people diagnosed with a mental disorder. Movies about mental illness offer knowledge, emotion and insight into someone battling mental illness.

What Is Mental Illness?

Emotions are what make us human, but sometimes emotions may negatively affect our behavior in a crippling way.

Mental illness is the involuntary change of emotion or behavior. Of course, a shift in emotion or behavior is typical during significant life events… such as starting a new job or the death of a loved one. However, if symptoms continue for an indefinite amount of time, it may be time to seek help.

There are multiple types of symptoms, diagnoses and treatments for mental illness. A clinical diagnosis is necessary to have before receiving treatment.

Each disorder will vary in symptoms, and behaviors may even change throughout the years. Mental health disorders range from depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, etc.

Fortunately, all mental illnesses are treatable through medication and therapy. Aside from medical treatment, check out these smart goals to help you deal with anxiety and depression.

People who struggle with mental health continue to face ongoing emotional battles and behavioral issues. In order for people with mental illness to be successful, they must understand what it means to have mental illness and what they go through.

Research, education, and empathy allow us to help others who battle mental illness every day. One of the great ways to absorb information is through film. There are plenty of excellent films which showcase mental illness maturely and respectfully.

11 Best Films That Explore Mental Illness

1. The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Mental illness possibly stems from childhood trauma, and The Skeleton Twins (2014) brings family, comedy, and trauma together. The pain of the past carries throughout our lives if left untreated. The power of accepting trauma is one of the best ways to recover from the past. The film reflects on the actions of others as they continue to heal through their lives.

Synopsis: Estranged siblings Maggie and Milo reenter each other lives during their lowest points. On the brink of suicide, they are reluctant to face the childhood trauma they both experienced growing up. The twins find refuge in the other while navigating their crumbling lives. This film teaches that the love and acceptance of family are essential in dealing with childhood pain The Skeleton Twins (2014) makes you laugh, cry, and reflect on your trauma, which begs you to heal.

You can stream The Skeleton Twins (2014) on Tubi for free.

2. The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)

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High school is one of the most frustrating, enlightening, and challenging times in our lives. Living through post-traumatic stress disorder makes it even more difficult. This best-selling novel-made movie is a combination of growing up as a teenager who has experienced a traumatic event in his life. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) explores the social-psychological effects PTSD has on teenagers and how love can help heal the wounds.

Synopsis: Charlie is an introverted teenager with no friends and soon graduating. Two unexpected seniors quickly befriend him and show Charlie what it feels like to be alive through musicals, gift exchanges, and friendship. However, the past soon catches up with Charlie, and he can no longer run from his emotions. This film is a beautiful take on the effects of childhood abuse and how it lingers into adulthood. The movie showcases the hope of recovering from a traumatic event and inspires the viewer to be as strong and unique as the movie's characters.

You can stream The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012) on Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV.

3. Speak (2004)

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This film is another excellent portrayal of a teenager recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder during her years in high school. Based on the award-winning book written by Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak is a beautifully painful watch as a teenage girl must navigate the complexities of adolescent friendships while holding a secret.

Synopsis: Melinda suffered a terrible event over the summer. She must enter high school with no friends and no direction. Due to her trauma, she has entirely gone mute without anyone in her life noticing. Her only outlet is through an eccentric art teacher and his distinctive lessons. Follow Melinda as she finds the courage to speak as she inevitably faces her past.

You can stream Speak (2004) free on Youtube free.

4. Inside Out (2015)

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There comes the point in our lives where we must grow up extremely fast. Inside Out (2015) is a remarkable exploration of a child's psychological and emotional effects during high-stress levels. Pixar Studios illustrates how we all interact with the world through emotions and how our actions reflect those emotions. If we cannot accept and understand our feelings, then we are destined to feel pessimistic about the world and ourselves. An understanding is one of the first steps in becoming an adult, and this film demonstrates that perfectly.

Synopsis: Riley is a young girl who moves from her Midwest life to San Francisco. At first, excited about her new life, things start to become too much, and she doesn't know how to feel. The viewer is thrown into the young girl's mind to see how she processes the world around her. Riley begins to ignore her emotions and becomes increasingly irritated and depressed. She must learn how to accept her feelings before they overtake her. Plenty of adults can learn from this enjoyable animated movie.

You can stream Inside Out (2015) on Disney+.

5. The Breakfast Club (1985)

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The breakfast club is a movie that withstands the test of time. An undeniable classic, The Breakfast Club (1985) is a raw representation of the average teenager's life. Teenage life is difficult because society expects teenagers to act like adults but treats them as a child. This film encourages the viewer to realize that teenagers have intense feelings that affect how they behave.

Synopsis: Five teenagers must spend a Saturday in detention for past violations. Each from a different walk of life: a popular girl, nerd, jock, outcast, and freak have something in common. No one understands them. The film is comedic yet intense as the teenagers converse about their abusive home lives and place in the world. Even though hormones are evident in teenagers do not make their emotions any less valid. Teenagers suffer from depression and anxiety just like adults and should receive the same help and treatment.

You can stream The Breakfast Club (1985) Peacock or Google Play.

6. Girl, Interrupted (1999)

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This best-selling memoir turned movie is a firsthand account of a young woman's experience inside an American psychiatric hospital in the 1960s. Treatment for mental illness has vastly improved through decades of research and funding. Although this film is set in the past, it is appreciated today due to its real human encounters. Girl, Interrupted (1999) is excellent for anyone who wishes to understand how different disorders affect people and others.

Synopsis: Susanna is admitted at 18 to a women's psychiatric hospital after an attempted suicide. During her stay, she meets women who suffer from various mental health disorders. Susanna befriends her fellow patients and comes to understand her sickness and how to treat it. Although, during her say, she stumbles through her treatment and refuses to believe she is ill. Through friendship, heartache, and acceptance, Susanna learns to manage her personality disorder diagnosis.

You can stream Girl, Interrupted (1999) on Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV.

7. Good Will Hunting (1997)

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Sometimes the effects of abandonment and abuse as a child remain into adulthood. If abuse from the past is never acknowledged, it will continue to eat away at any hope of feeling better. The main character suffers from an attachment disorder which is evident in this award-winning film. Good Will Hunting (1997) is a beautiful film that gives viewers hope for the future.

Synopsis: Will is a poor, troubled young man who so happens to be a genius. Founded by a mathematics professor at M.I.T, Will works with the professor to create groundbreaking equations and algorithms. He has several therapy sessions with a charismatic psychologist, where he evaluates his friendships, relationships, and childhood. Will must make a choice that will affect his future for the better. It is up to Will to accept the pain of the past and realize that the future can be bright and hopeful.

You can stream Good Will Hunting (1997) on Sling TV and Apple TV.

8. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

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Mental illness does not only affect the individual but also loved ones. Silver Linings Playbook (2012) is a beautiful portrayal of what a family must endure when someone is diagnosed with a severe mental health disorder. The story displays comedy, drama, and love that is engaging for anyone to watch.

Synopsis: Pat has been released from an eight-month treatment program in psychiatric care for his bipolar disorder. He reenters his life fighting to win back his ex-wife's affections, who wants nothing to do with him. He befriends Hillary, a woman with bipolar disorder, and dreams of entering a dance contest. The film experiments with the romantic relationship between Pat and Hillary, people with the same mental illness, and how they deserve to find love. They find refuge within the other and realize that they are not as different as those around them.

You can stream Silver Linings Playbook (2012) on Netflix.

9. The King of Staten Island (2015)

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Bipolar disorder can make one feel like their emotions and feelings are out of control. They cannot think straight or continue to make wrong decisions. The King Of Staten Island (2015) is a great film that portrays the selfishness of the disease. However, people can fight through the adverse effects with the right mindset and encouragement.

Synopsis: Scott is a young man who refuses to get his life on track. He finds no purpose in close relationships or improving his behavior. Instead, Scott hangs out with his friends who also have no future. The film follows Scott as he realizes the people around him are moving on with their lives to become happier people. Scott must decide if he wants to try for the first time in his life to be a better person who continues with his rebellious ways.

You can stream The King of Staten Island (2020) on HBO Max.

10. Ben Is Back (2018)

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Addiction classifies as a clinical mental illness. Addiction can also lead to various health disorders such as sociopathic disorders or schizophrenia. Ben is Back (2018) shows the heartache of drug abuse and the unrelenting spirit of a family that does anything to protect a loved one

Synopsis: Ben has returned to his childhood home to visit his family. Ben's mother, Holly, is reluctant to consider past behaviors but realizes he is sober. Holly cautiously watches over Ben during his stay to protect him from the pain of the past and stop him from doing drugs. The lengths a mother goes through to protect her child are evident in the film.

Importantly, if you are someone you know is struggling with addiction, many creative outlets help with recovery. Music is a strong and expression to get through difficult times. Check out this great list of songs about recovery.

You can stream Ben Is Back (2018) on Hulu and Apple TV.

11. Mary and Max (2009)

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A diagnosis of Asperger's or Autism is a sigh of relief to many. Mountains of treatment and medication are available for people who suffer from this disorder. However, the diagnosis carries a social stigma. Mary and Max (2009) is a clay animation movie that teaches the value of acceptance through friendship.

Synopsis: Max is an older man who receives a letter from an eight-year-old Australian girl, Mary. Mary and Max become instant pen-pals, and the viewer watches their lives unfold through numerous letters addressed to them both. Although the movie battles with intense scenes, including self-harm, child abuse, and addiction. It teaches that if people are kind to one another, they understand how vital kindness is needed in our lives. This film is an excellent watch for anyone who feels alone in their diagnosis of a mental disorder.

You can stream Mary and Max (2009) on Sling TV and Apple TV.

12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

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For a wide-reaching view of mental illnesses and the institutionalization of those with mental illness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an interesting movie to watch. The movie features several mental health conditions, from personality disorders to abusive and controlling disorders. The message is that no two people can be treated the same, regardless of their diagnosis, we are all individuals.  

Synopsis: Murphy is a two-time criminal, and to avoid a strike three conviction, he feigns a mental illness, hoping for a lighter sentence at a mental institution instead of a real prison. However, things aren’t as easy as he believed, and he ends up leading a revolt among the patients against the cruel and dictatorial nurse who runs the ward.  

Stream One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on AppleTV or Prime Video. 

13. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

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Being shy is not really a mental health condition, but when it affects your ability to function normally, it can lead to any number of other mental illnesses and health conditions. In Lars and the Real Girl, the movie bravely explores what happens when trauma is suppressed and we aren’t given an avenue to discuss our past and what we experience. 

Synopsis: Lars is a shy guy who doesn’t have the confidence to date a real girl. His traumatic past and the loss of both his parents cause him to struggle with connecting to real people. When Lars suddenly gets a girlfriend, a sex doll, his family and the small community he lives in decide to play along and also pretend the doll is a real person. Lars learns to open up and talk about his trauma as he experiences life vicariously through his doll girlfriend.  

Stream Lars and the Real Girl on Tubi TV. 

14. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

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Paranoid schizophrenia is a mental health condition that involves hearing voices and suffering delusions. The award-winning A Beautiful Mind journeys through the pain, isolation, and confusion that accompanies this mental health condition. The film also covers the agony that those who love someone with schizophrenia suffer. Ultimately, the film covers the strength of the human mind to overcome hallucinations and continue living with a purpose. 

Synopsis: Mathematician John Nash makes a brilliant discovery, but in what should have been the brightest time of his life, he starts participating in a disturbing hallucination where he cracks a code that is used by the Nazis. The hallucinations and voices he hears become so real that this dominates his life and leads to mental distress. 

Watch A Beautiful Mind on AppleTV or Netflix. 

15. The Fountain (2006)

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Accepting our immortality is something we all struggle with, but some people find this particularly hard. At the thought that their loved ones will die, they may suffer delusional breaks that can create various forms of psychosis. Thanatophobia, or a fear of dying, is a real phobia and it can be debilitating to those who suffer from it.  

Synopsis: The Fountain tracks the journey of a man who is searching for a cure for cancer for his wife as he ends up trying to find a mythical star where immortality exists. Eventually, as the plot progresses, the man has to accept his own mortality and that he will die, and that death is nothing to fear.  

Watch The Fountain on AppleTV or purchase from Amazon.

16. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

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In an absolute classic movie that put Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio on the map, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape deals with the trauma that those who are caretakers of their challenged family members suffer. The doubt, alienation, and even post-traumatic disorder that Gilbert deals with as the whole community turns against his massively obese mother and his mentally challenged brother is portrayed in a raw and authentic way.  

Synopsis: Gilbert is the caretaker of his mother and mentally challenged brother. His entire life and the challenges he faces revolve around trying to fend for them, defending them, and trying to bring some normalcy to his family.  

Watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape on Amazon Prime Video.

17. Matchstick Men (2003)

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Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a complicated mental illness that is often accompanied by other disorders and mental conditions such as panic attacks, agoraphobia, and severe mental distress. 

Synopsis: In the movie Matchstick Men, Nicholas Cage portrays a con man who suffers from OCD and can’t socialize or fit into the normal world unless he can satisfy his need for order. When his worst fears are realized and he gets conned by those he trusted most, he suddenly learns to live a normal life and let go of his own paranoia. 

View Matchstick Men on Amazon Prime Video or on AppleTV. 

18. One Hour Photo (2002)

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Mental illness often takes the form of obsessions. When you become obsessed with something in your life, you stop caring about what is right or wrong, as long as you can meet that obsession. Often, an obsession can lead to severe antisocial behavior and even dangerous actions. One Hour Photo shows just how dangerous an obsession can become.  

Synopsis: In a rare portrayal of the “bad guy” by Robin Williams, we follow as the photo development clerk at a one-hour photo booth becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he regularly develops for them. When the father of the family has an affair, the photo booth clerk takes action to save the relationship of the “perfect” family he has seen in their photos. 

Watch One Hour Photo on Google Play Movie or on AppleTV.

19. As Good as It Gets (1997)

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Obsessive compulsive disorder is often a disorder that masks other underlying mental health conditions. From not wanting to walk on cracks, refusing to eat with restaurant cutlery, or being antisocial, OCD often hides more severe issues such as a lack of confidence, antisocial personality disorder, and other limiting behavior. 

Synopsis: Melvin, the lead character in As Good as It Gets, is a recluse writer who suffers from OCD. When his gay neighbor is violently assaulted and ends up in hospital, Melvin has to take in the cheeky dog that his neighbor cherishes. At the same time, Melvin falls in love with a waitress, but he realizes that his mental health issues may limit his ability to connect to the woman of his dreams.  

Watch As Good as It Gets on Google Play Movies and Netflix.

20. Instinct (1999)

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When trauma influences our world view, it can lead to severe mental distress and unhinged behavior. In the movie Instinct, the core of what makes us human is explored in the face of severe brutality and a lack of empathy with the animal world.  

Synopsis: The movie Instinct is based on the book Ishmael and follows the journey of an anthropologist who studied primates for years. When he rejoins civilization, he has murdered two poachers, and the struggle for him to reclaim his humanity without denying his experiences begins.  

Watch Instinct on Roku.com or Netflix. 

21. Identity (2003)

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Perhaps one of the most terrifying mental illnesses that can be diagnosed is multiple personality disorder, also known as having split personalities. In a groundbreaking look into the mind of someone who suffers from this mental illness, Identity provides a horrific fantasy view of what living with multiple personalities may be like.  

Synopsis: Identity has 10 strangers at a deserted motel in Nevada at night during a rainstorm. One by one, the characters are killed, until only a few remain, at which point, the viewer discovers that these characters are all fictional and inside a convicted murderer’s head. One personality at a time, the convict eliminates his split personalities, hoping to achieve inner peace.  Watch Identity on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix.

More On Movies About Mental Illness

The movies listed above are great for anyone who wants to learn more about mental illness.

Each film takes careful aim to approach the topic with respect and care. People with mental illness, and their loved ones, don't need to feel hopeless.

Anyone can be happy. And you can choose to be happy with the right treatment, if you are the one suffering from mental illness.

Happiness is worth fighting for. It may seem like a long road ahead, but seeking treatment is the first step towards healing.  

All of the movies on the list have a happy ending, and so can you.

Finally, if you want to increase your happiness and life satisfaction, then watch this free video that details the 7-minute habit for planning your day to focus on what's important.

See more movies about dealing with different types of mental illness:

movies about mental illness | tv shows and movies about mental illness | movies that romanticize mental illness
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