7 movies with mentally ill characters

Mental illnesses portrayed in movies are not always exaggerated.
Mental illnesses portrayed in movies are not always exaggerated.

We're constantly exposed to the media, which makes it crucial that important issues – like those around mental health – are portrayed as accurately as possible.

Movies can misguide us and alter our perception of the reality of mental illness – but fortunately here are a number of films that give quite an accurate description and portrayal of various mental illnesses, while maintaining their entertainment value.

These movies include:

(Warning: some spoilers ahead)

1. Thirteen (2003)

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) affects your attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, causing a lot of stress in your life. Thirteen portrays this kind of mental illness in such a way that it not only showcases the signs and symptoms of the individual suffering from the disorder, but also the risks involved, and the effect it has on the family.

Psychology Today describes Thirteen as an excellent portrayal of the underrated dangers teenagers face – not only from peer pressure but also from dysfunctional family relations.

The protagonist, Tracy, has a normal life with good friends until she gets close to Evie. Most people believe peer pressure is the biggest danger for young teenagers, but not in Tracy's case.

The biggest danger for Tracy is her relationship with her divorced and recovering alcoholic mother, Melanie, at home. Melanie is a helpless woman who allows her friends and cocaine-addicted ex-boyfriend to take advantage of her – financial or otherwise. And each confrontation with her mother and her "no-show" father results in Tracy becoming more and more self-destructive.

As a result of the dysfunction at home, Tracy develops self-destructive behaviour – she begins by cutting herself and stealing, while learning even more self-destructive behaviour from Evie.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) describes people with BPD as experiencing “extreme mood swings and uncertainty about who they are”.

Symptoms of BPD include:

  • A pattern of unstable relationships with family and friends – shifting from extreme closeness to extreme dislike or anger
  • Distorted and unstable self-image
  • Impulsive and often dangerous behaviour such as unsafe sex and substance abuse
  • Threats or self-harming behaviour such as cutting
  • Inappropriate, intense and uncontrolled anger

2. The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King tells a story about two men who suffer from psychological disorders. Jack Lucas suffers from depression, and Parry from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some background information on Jack: He is a shock-jock who mocks and divulges "juicy" celebrity stories. He is straightforward and "tells it like it is". Many listeners know that he is only joking, but one lonely listener takes his words to heart.

Jack learns that this lonely listener took offence at his comments to a mentally unstable caller, and opened fire at a trendy bar, killing many innocent bystanders before turning the gun on himself. Jack falls into a depressive spell a few years after and withdraws from the outside world.

As time goes by, Jack descends deeper and deeper into his depression. He finds it harder to do everyday things and turns to alcohol. Finally he attempts to commit suicide in a bid to escape from his tormented mind.

Depression takes several forms, according to Health24. There are three common types of depression: major depression, dysthymia, and bipolar disorder (manic depression).

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) lists the following common symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or empty mood
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt
  • Decreased energy, fatigue and feeling run down
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Hostility
  • Thought of suicide and death
  • Suicidal attempts

3. Forrest Gump (1994)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is portrayed by a young man, Lieutenant Dan Taylor, a Vietnam War veteran. 

He suffers from PTSD as a direct result of the war and the traumatic event which caused him to lose both his legs. He also witnessed members of his team killed in the line of duty.

Lt. Dan exhibits prominent intrusive symptoms of person with PTSD: he cries and wonders what he will do with his life as a paraplegic. Losing his legs is a constant reminder of the traumatic event he experienced and cannot escape from.

According to Health24, memories of the traumatic experience can occur as flashbacks – the feeling of going through it again – and can be intrusive. It can also occur unexpectedly. It happens suddenly, accompanied by vivid memories and painful emotions.

4. Memento (2000)

Anterograde amnesia (or short-term memory loss) is brought to the fore in the contemporary movie Memento. It follows the story of former insurance investigator, Leonard Shelby, as he tries to track down the person who attacked him and his wife, killing her and leaving him with a brain injury – one that prevents him from making new memories.

"You can question everything. You can never know anything for sure."

Although not a psychiatric illness, but rather a traumatic brain injury, Shelby does justice to the role of a patient with anterograde amnesia.

A noteworthy mistake is Memento is that, patients with anterograde amnesia normally don't remember the traumatic event that caused their amnesia. He remembers that he and his wife were attacked and that she was killed. He doesn’t, however, remember the killer.

Other than that, the brain injury is depicted quite accurately in the movie as the inability to create new short-term memories, without any past memories being distorted or forgotten.

5. Fight Club (1999)

“The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club” is one of the most famous quotes in the movie portraying dissociative identity disorder (DID), also known as multiple personality disorder. But what does this mean?

People may interpret it as the first rule of mental illness being that you don’t talk about mental illness.

In the movie Fight Club, viewers are introduced to the narrator of the film. He doesn't have a name and is shy and introverted. He is shown to have a sleeping disorder, frequently drinking and often violent. Later, the narrator meets a character by the name of Tyler Durden who is the opposite of him. Durden is outgoing and loud, and takes risks.

The key point in the movie is that the narrator does not have a name. This hints that the narrator could be the other "personality" of Durden. Studies have shown that secondary personalities do what the first personality desires, but would never actually do themselves.

DID is characterised by the presence of two or more personalities, each with its own distinct state, reasoning and perception. In a person with DID, these identities recurrently take control of the individual’s behaviour. The individual may not be able to recall important information while in another state.

Other symptoms of DID include mood swings, hallucinations, sleep disorders, violence, and alcohol and drug abuse.

6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

The signs of antisocial personality disorder are present in Kevin from a young age. He shows no empathy towards his mother and does not understand that his disrespectful and disruptive behaviour is not socially acceptable.

Kevin grows up to be a maniac and goes on killing sprees without any obvious reason.

An individual with the disorder usually has a history of misconduct and aggressive behaviour during their adolescent years.

Research has shown that people with antisocial personality disorder display the following characteristics:

  • No sense of right or wrong
  • Lack of concern, regret or remorse about others
  • Disregard of normal social behaviour
  • Irresponsible behaviour
  • Lack of guilt

7. As Good as It Gets (1997)

Melvin Udall is an odd man with odd rituals. He has set rules for the way he eats and even locks his door. Udall also has a certain way of walking, talking and thinking, which ultimately distorts the way he lives his life. 

Udall’s life ultimately becomes quite difficult as a result of the way he is.

In the movie, he is diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). NIH characterises OCD as follows:

  • Fear of germs and contamination
  • The need to have things symmetrical or in perfect order
  • Excessive cleaning or handwashing
  • Repeatedly checking on things, such as checking to see if a door is locked
  • Compulsive counting

NIH states that people with OCD may also try to avoid situations that may trigger their obsessions or compulsions, and even use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves.

Image credit: iStock

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