Mental Illness in Media: 3 Movies That Portray It Accurately

Mental illness can bring a host of unique challenges for both the patient and their loved ones. There are the symptoms and complications related to the condition, of course, but one of the most difficult things to deal with can be the number of misunderstandings and social stigmas. In large part, this misinformation comes from the way the entertainment industry chooses to represent mental illness. However, while the way mental illness manifests is unique to every individual, the portrayal of mental illness in media isn’t always wrong. “There are some stereotypes, but that is to be expected,” said Stephanie Parmely, Ph.D., a psychologist with Mercy Medical Group, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation. Dr. Parmely notes that although movies have the tendency to use mental illness as an entertainment factor, the following three films do a good job of portraying some aspects of mental illness.

Good Will Hunting: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Although this 1997 hit still gets plenty of attention for its captivating performances and engaging story, there is one element that isn’t often discussed: its accurate and powerful portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The titular character, Will (Matt Damon), is — somewhat famously, at this point — a self-taught mathematical genius from a rough neighborhood. But the character is deeply driven and impacted by the abuse that he endured as a child. The story does an excellent job of showing the self-doubt, guilt, depression, and frustration that can arise in cases of PTSD.

One scene is particularly authentic. At one point in the film, Will confronts Carmine, his abuser, and is enraged when Carmine acts like he doesn’t remember ever mistreating Will. This sense of frustration, anger, and even confusion is something many PTSD sufferers have had to face. When analyzing this film to discuss treatment plans for a PTSD sufferer, Jason Hawkins RN, BSN, MSN, was extremely affected by the scene. “The same thing that happened to Will happened to me,” he wrote. “My emotional abuser denied the event and even suggested that I fabricated the entire memory… I could almost feel all those memories that Will was experiencing.”

Good Will Hunting also works because Will is so very likable. The story — and Damon’s performance — directly challenges some of the stigma surrounding PTSD. Often, movies and TV present sufferers as incoherent hermits, which is a grossly dramatized and damaging version of the condition. Will is a brilliant young man who viewers root for throughout the movie.

They Look Like People: Prodromal Schizophrenia

Typically, depictions of schizophrenia only focus on a very limited aspect of the condition — delusions, hallucinations, and confusion. In reality, schizophrenia occurs in phases. They Look Like People, an independent thriller, deals with the frequently ignored prodromal, or initial phase, which is characterized by social withdrawal, outbursts of anger, and generally odd behaviors. The film explores the condition through suspense and vivid, sometimes upsetting, images, and the goal is to help the audience understand just how frightening schizophrenia can be for sufferers — especially those who are still learning about and coming to terms with their condition.

They Look Like People is significant because of this somewhat-edgy approach to depicting the main character, Wyatt’s, illness. Those visuals are simply a tool to help the audience understand exactly what’s happening inside Wyatt’s mind. And unlike many other films, Wyatt is not depicted as a monster or a villain because of his schizophrenia. Throughout the story, Wyatt develops close friendships, and it’s these relationships that humanize him in a way that schizophrenia sufferers seldom get to see. They Look Like People makes it clear that, although Wyatt is struggling with an illness, he’s a loving person who is helped by the support and courage of those around him.

Lars and the Real Girl: Agoraphobia and Social Anxiety

Exploring the difficulties of agoraphobia and social anxiety through a slightly quirky lens, Lars and the Real Girl sends a very positive message about tolerance, love, and support for the mental health of others. The movie tells the story of a young man, Lars, who has struggled with a series of traumas since childhood. According to Margaret Jordan, PhD, these events have led Lars to develop schizoid personality disorder. (The film, however, never makes this diagnosis.) While Lars’s past is explored a little, the story really picks up when he begins a very real relationship with a life-size inanimate doll named Bianca.

For those worried that the film could drift into somewhat lewd territory, have no fear. The majority of the story shows how the community rallies around and supports Lars, rather than ostracizing him over Bianca being an object. Explaining the situation to Lars’s brother, his therapist puts it like this: “What we call mental illness isn’t always just an illness. It can be a communication; it can be a way to work something out.” Because of the love and compassion of those around him, Lars is able to gradually develop relationships that he simply could not handle at the start of the movie. And it’s this aspect of the story that really makes the film stand out. According to a review at Mental Health America, “This movie really says something about what community support should look like, and how it can help.”

The portrayal of mental illness in media isn’t always wrong. If you’re curious about what it’s like to live with one of these three mental illnesses, these movies are a great place to start.