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4 Films to Watch that Portray Mental Disorders in a Responsible Way

March 27, 2013

Hollywood is arguably one of the most influential institutions in modern day western culture. Often mental illness is portrayed negatively, and stigma is enhanced with the common language used in movies. However, these four films got it right when they attempted to portray a mental disorder.

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1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Movie premise: A coming of age film set in the early 1990s that connects us with what it’s like to be a teenager during that time after experiencing a series of traumatic events as a child. The protagonist, Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, melts the viewer’s heart as he goes through the rollercoaster of emotions of being an ‘uncool’ teen coupled with the distress of unfortunate events such as his aunt’s death and molestation of him when he was seven years old and best friend’s recent suicide.

It’s accurate because: Charlie expresses a lot of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although it is never said outright in the film.  One of the characteristics of PTSD involves re-experiencing the event, which Charlie does when he has his first sexual encounter and when he realizes that his aunt had molested him. As well, Charlie starts to experiment with drugs and alcohol and although risk taking is common for teens, it can also be a sign that he is attempting to cope with his trauma by self medicating.

2. The Soloist (2009)

Movie premise: LA Times Journalist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is on the hunt for a story when he meets a Juilliard-educated homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) who suffers from schizophrenia. Ayers plays beautiful music while busking on the streets of LA.

It’s accurate because: Ayers’ character hears voices, and he tries to drown out those voices with his music. There are some studies that suggest music can be beneficial to those living with Schizophrenia. Ayers has withdrawn himself from social situations, even to the point of refusing to enter the street outreach facility that seemed to be the closest to home for him. As his friendship with Lopez developed however, and Ayers played more of his music, he seemed to be able to conquer this fear.

3. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Movie premise: Biopic of the famed mathematician John Nash (Russell Crow) and his lifelong struggles with his mental health, eventually being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

It’s accurate because: John Nash displays very clear symptoms of Schizophrenia, including paranoia, hearing voices and delusions. But the reason this film is most relevant, is the language the psychiatrist uses when he is telling Nash’s wife about his illness. “He has Schizophrenia,” he says, using the “people first” method of discussing mental disorders. By using “people first” we discuss disorder as being something that is affecting that person, rather than defining who or what that person is. An example of what we want to avoid saying is calling someone “the Schizophrenic.” This assumes that person is nothing other than the disorder itself, which is inaccurate for obvious reasons. We wouldn’t call someone with cancer “The Canceric.” Why would we call someone “Schizophrenic?” The psychiatrist also refers to the disorder as a “disorder” rather than an “illness,” which is more appropriate. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, Schizophrenia is a classifiable disorder.

4. As Good as it Gets (1997)

Movie premise: Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is hostile toward nearly everyone, a successful writer and has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He begins to alienate everyone around him, including the only waitress that will tolerate him.

Why it’s accurate: Melvin exhibits OCD symptoms throughout the film, including avoiding stepping on cracks, touching people, and bringing his own sterile eating utensils. Melvin displays having compulsions, which interfere with normal social functioning, a key component to whether the compulsions indicate one should be diagnosed with OCD. In order for one to be diagnosed, they must also meet Criterion B – the realization that the obsessions and compulsions are unreasonable. Melvin meets this later in the movie.

To learn more about these mental disorders and the symptoms and treatments available, visit www.cmha.calgary.ab.ca

Additional films that portray mental illness:

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
The Fisher King (1991)
The Last Picture Show (1971)

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