My own mental health condition means that I tend to take a liking towards films and TV shows that feature mental health themes. Obviously they’re not the only things I watch, but as an ex-psychology student, my curiosity gets the better of me. I’m not sure specifically what the appeal is, but I find the portrayals of different conditions fascinating, and in some cases you can even learn things. There’s even times where you can see inaccuracies and stereotypes for different conditions too, and back in the day that used to give my analysis muscles a good workout! One thing I think is behind the reasons for why I like these themes is also because in some cases I find them relatable. That’s why today, I’ve put together a list of my favourite mental health portrayals in TV and film, most of which because I find them highly relatable!
Glee never shied away from addressing difficult subjects, however one I really relate to looking back has to be guidance counsellor Emma Pilsbury and her battle with OCD. In the first couple of episodes, she appears as the typical stereotype for OCD – quirky and obsessed with keeping things clean and tidy. However, as the show goes on, her struggles become more complex, and you can clearly see the torture she goes through with it. The episode that I relate to the most has to be one in Season 3, Asian F. In this episode Emma gets a visit from her parents, and the stress causes her symptoms to worsen. Her parents then mock her behaviour, and by the end of the episode you see her crying in distress while Will can’t do anything to help her. She asks him to pray with her and he sings Fix You to her. I mentioned in an earlier post that the song always reminds me of this scene, and the thing I relate to the most is Emma’s sheer desperation. I’m not religious, but I’ve been in that situation more times that I’d care to count, where you’re completely overcome with how much of a bully OCD is.
A Star is Born (2018)
I only saw this for the first time a few months ago and I instantly became obsessed with it. I fell in love with the soundtrack and Lady Gaga is just amazing throughout. Of course as Gaga’s character, Ally, rises to fame, Bradley Cooper’s character, Jackson starts to struggle with his alcoholism to the point where he publicly humiliates her. A number of these scenes were painful to watch, however from a mental health perspective, one scene that sticks out in my mind is towards the end of the movie when Jackson has a conversation with Ally’s manager, and tells him that he almost destroyed her career and that she would be better off without him. I went through a number of feelings towards Jackson as I watched the movie, but in this particular scene I felt sorry for him. Anyone who has seen the movie will know the outcome of this (although I won’t spoil it for you), and some may argue it’s not necessarily a key scene, but for me it highlights what a vile person Ally’s manager is, and how his toxic comments destroy someone who is already in a vulnerable state. Just don’t be a dick guys.
As Good as It Gets (1997)
When you mention a Jack Nicholson movie with a mental health theme, I’m sure most people would go for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m ashamed to say that it’s a film I’ve ever seen. I know right, how could I have called myself a psychology student?! It’s on my list of one of those movies I need to watch, and I will get there eventually, honest. Anyway, I first saw As Good as It Gets years ago, way before my OCD had even surfaced, but I especially loved Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of his character. He was just so relatable! His OCD mainly revolved around contamination, which, you know, me AF, and he showed a pure dislike for pretty much everyone he encounters, especially towards anyone who disrupts his routine! I’ve been there many a time.
Inside Out (2015)
The psychology student in me fangirled so hard at this. I loved this movie, and as Pixar have done countless times, they hit you hard in the feels. From the psychology perspective, I loved how accurate it was with the terminology and how they portrayed memories getting processed. I’ll tell you, cognitive psychology (along with statistics) was my worst subject at uni, and if this movie had been around back then, I would have paid a hell of a lot more attention in my lectures. Of course Inside Out didn’t just appeal to me from the psychology side either, I love a movie that slaps you round the face with a big ol’ wedge of emotion, and that’s exactly what this does. While kids would have loved the bright colours and quirky characters, I think any adult who saw this will tell you the lesson that you should learn to acknowledge your feelings when you’re struggling is an important one, especially when you live with a mental health problem.
You may remember I mentioned a particular scene in Scrubs in one of my last posts, and because this is one of my favourite mental health portrayals, you’re damn sure I’m going to mention it again. There’s a couple of episodes in Season 3 that feature a character played by Michael J Fox, Dr Kevin Casey. In particular, the episode where he is first introduced, My Catalyst, the other doctors are in awe of his brilliance. Despite living with OCD, he’s a highly skilled doctor with unbeatable surgical skills, but the more he upstages everyone, the more the other doctors grow frustrated with him. At the end of the episode, JD finds Dr Casey repeatedly washing his hands after a surgery, and he explains that even though his surgery finished hours ago, he can’t stop washing them. The take home message being that the thing that has led Dr Casey to being a successful, unbeatable doctor is the same thing that tortures him as a person, and it’s quite an upsetting scene to watch. As a huge fan of Scrubs back in the day (hell, I’m still a fan even now), I’d seen this episode many times, and it was only a year or so ago I watched it back after getting my diagnosis of OCD myself. Out of all of the movies and TV shows I’ve mentioned, I think this is without a doubt the one I relate to the most. Even now, the frustration that comes from the feeling that you can’t stop washing your hands is horrific, and his reaction is exactly how I’ve reacted in the past when my OCD has been particularly bad. Overall, Michael J Fox plays the character incredibly well, but it’s this particular scene that really stands out.
Normal People (2020)
There’s no denying that Normal People became an obsession of mine during the coronavirus lockdown, specifically Paul Mescal and his portrayal of Connell. My opinion may be somewhat biased because of how much I’ve been thirsting over him, but I’m sure many will agree that his performance in episode 10 of the series was incredible. Connell experiences severe depression following the suicide of one of his old school friends, and the episode documents the events that occur after the event, including being persuaded by a friend to seek help. His performance in the whole episode (and of course the series as a whole) is outstanding, but the scene where he breaks down during his counselling session is just superbly acted. The tension and the emotion in the scene is just gut-wrenching, and in a way I related to Connell’s situation of being at college and not feeling like he fit in. I think it was such a fantastic portrayal of depression, especially in men, and it felt real. He wasn’t magically fixed after just one session, and in the next episode you see him taking medication – both of which aren’t things you see in typical TV shows and films.
What are your favourite movies/TV shows that portray mental health? I’d love to discover some new ones and maybe even put together a post reviewing them, so feel free to leave me some suggestions in the comments!