World Mental Health Day: 9 Great Films That Explore Mental Illness
A scene from "A Beautiful Mind" courtesy Universal Pictures.
The 26th Rendezvous With Madness Festival — the original art and mental health festival — kicks off 12 days of film, live performances and visual arts in Toronto on, appropriately enough, World Mental Health Day (Oct. 10).
This year, the opening night of the festival features a screening of the Canadian documentary The Song and the Sorrow — a film about Juno-winning Canuck songwriter Gene MacLellan, whose songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Loretta Lynn and others while, back home in Canada, Anne Murray enjoyed hits with a number of his tunes including “The Call,” “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “Snowbird.” The Quebec-born songwriter, however, struggled for most of his life with depression and committed suicide in 1995 at age 56. The documentary follows his daughter, Catherine MacLellan — herself a celebrated and accomplished musician — as she attempts to unravel the reality of her father’s depression and what led him to suicide.
So in honour of World Mental Health Day, we look back on nine of our favourite feature films that shine a light, and offer some insight, into mental health issues that many still struggle with today.
1. Gaslight (1944)
You have this Ingrid Bergman film to thank for the term “gaslighting,” which has gained traction in popular vernacular in recent years. Psychology Today describes the term as “a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality” and notes that “it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders … [and] is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.”
The film, Gaslight, in which a man slowly convinces his wife that she’s going insane, depicts just that, and it went on to earn seven Oscar nominations. It took home two awards, including Bergman’s win for Best Actress. Its lasting contribution, however, lies in the “gaslighting” term it inspired, which is routinely used today to describe everything from behaviour in abusive relationships to the tactics of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who routinely lies, manipulates and distorts reality in political debate while creating “alternative facts” for his followers to applaud.
2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
This big screen classic became only the second film in history to take home the Big Five Oscar statuettes — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay — but it also served a greater purpose in shedding light on the treatment of people suffering from mental illness. A story from Screen Rant notes that, “The themes of the film included the gross mistreatment of psychiatric patients in the sixties and the criminalization and ostracization of free-thinking, anti-authoritative people. The film features characters who suffer from anxiety disorders, epilepsy, deafness, muteness, and other diagnoses.” And along with bringing the treatment of people with mental health issues and illness to the forefront, the film nabbed five of the nine Oscars it earned nominations for while gaining accolades from the United States Library of Congress and preservation in the National Film Registry.
3. Ordinary People (1980)
A young man dies tragically in a boating accident, sending his family reeling into a tailspin of grief, PTSD and survivor’s guilt in what many call a textbook example for depicting psychiatry in film. Just ask the U.K.’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, which calls the film, “a wonderful starting point for a discussion about the indications for individual psychotherapy and family therapy and accurately illustrates the psychological resistance of a family member to any form of outside intervention that can so seriously interfere with the healing of the whole family.” And just as important, the Royal College adds that, “Ordinary People highlights the stigma that still surrounds psychiatric treatment for many people and perhaps helps us to understand why there is an urgent need to encourage awareness amongst young people about depression, suicidal feelings and the help that is available.”
The film also serves as Robert Redford’s directorial debut — for which he won the Best Director Oscar, one of the four Academy Awards it nabbed — and marked a stark transition for comedy legend Mary Tyler Moore, who muted her comic instincts to deliver an Oscar-nominated dramatic performance.
4. Rain Man (1988)
It’s certainly not the perfect depiction of autism in popular culture, but the film, which stars Dustin Hoffman as Raymond, a strict, emotionless autistic savant, did help to bring awareness to a condition that was all but a mystery to most in the late 1980s. There are, of course, varying subtypes of autism and Rain Man has been criticized for its lack of understanding when it comes to that point. For example, a post by Nils Skudra on the Art Of Autism website, notes that, “[Raymond’s] doctor states that ‘most autistics don’t communicate’ and that Raymond is ‘very high functioning.’ However, the subsequent three decades of advances in medical understanding of autism, together with firsthand experience of interacting with people on the autism spectrum, have demonstrated that while many autistic individuals are unable to communicate verbally, there are also innumerably more who, while challenged in their social interaction, can do so and are perfectly articulate.”
Still, the film boasts many redeemable qualities — Skudra writes that it “captures with striking accuracy the sensory difficulties and high anxiety levels that accompany autism’s positive aspects” — and served as the first major film to bring the condition into the public consciousness.
5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
The story of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who battled paranoid schizophrenia and went on to win a Nobel Prize, earned accolades from critics and fans alike, riding an award season wave of popularity to four Oscars, including Best Picture. In the film we see Nash, played by Russell Crowe, deal with his condition from its onset, eventually forsaking drug treatments that negatively affect other aspects of his life to conquer the condition by force of sheer willpower. Dr. Ken Davis, chairman of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, called Crowe’s performance, “a brilliant job of portraying the mannerisms, and some of the behaviours of a schizophrenic — the best I have ever seen on the screen,” in an interview with ABC News, though he adds that, “On the other hand, the notion that willpower can really overcome schizophrenia is ludicrous.”