Mental Health in Film: Helpful Vs Harmful


Mental health is a subject explored in a number of different films across all genres. However, for the purpose of the viewers’ entertainment, portrayals of mental health are often distorted, further contributing to a negative perception of this already stigmatized health issue. However, other films have tackled the issue with respect and passion. For Mental Health Awareness Week, The Edge writers have selected films which we think show mental health in either helpful and harmful ways.


Ordinary People

Robert Redford’s Ordinary People is a subtle and nuanced, yet masterful examination of mental health. Central character Conrad is deeply affected by the death of his older brother; he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt over his brother’s death and begins the film returning to everyday life after a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. Conrad’s mental afflictions cause him to become alienated from his friends and family, most notably his mother, and it’s here that Ordinary People truly sinks in. Mental health struggles often cause people to feel lonely and alone, regardless of who is around them or who is making an effort to help or spend time with them. Conrad’s isolation is a hauntingly realistic depiction of a teenager who is emotionally devastated by his past and suffocated in the present. He finds himself unable to let anyone in and it’s heartbreaking to watch. Conrad’s struggle is one of trying to control emotion when in reality this is nearly impossible, so he must learn to simply deal with it. It’s a moving and measured study of mental health, one that resonates so deeply and strikes a very raw nerve through its humanistic approach.

By David Mitchell-Baker

Burning Man

Burning Man (2011) accurately depicts the discombobulating aftermath of loss through the eyes of chef, Tom (Matthew Goode).  A joltingly harsh and disjointed storytelling technique is employed by writer/director, Jonathan Teplitzky, and editor, Martin O’Connor, in a way that rejects the tropes of a linear allegory and reflects the numbing nihilism that frequently accompanies bereavement.

Tom’s initial presentation plays right into stereotypes of the nyctophiles of the hospitality industry.  Bloodshot eyes and an accomplished detachment from his random sexual hook-ups enforce the caustic elusiveness that’s seen towards concerned relations. This extends to his young son, who is relinquished to a relative’s more stable home.  However, after having established Tom as an all-round jerk, Teplitzky begins incrementally altering our perception of him by introducing recollections of his wife, Sarah ( Bojana Novakovic), giving a better idea of what turned him into this irascible single-parent with a proclivity for curly-wigged prostitutes.

Melancholic portrayals with weighty silences and affective strings are replaced by staggered scene takes and a frantic energy, which taps into the reverberations of ignoring grief and how easily sex becomes an outlet for displaced feelings.  Inspired by personal experiences, Burning Man is an honest account of the confusing and disjointing effect that trauma has.

By Katja Stout

Girl, Interrupted

One of the most powerful and acclaimed depictions of mental health on film, Girl, Interrupted explores the realities of being institutionalised with stark, incredible depth. Starring Wynona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, the 1999 adaptation is based on Susanna Kaysen’s autobiography of the same name, which poignantly depicts her time in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960’s. The hospital that Kaysen stayed in, McLean (which in the film was reinvented as Claymoore), was renowned for treating famous clientele like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles. The novel and the film don’t seek to idealise this though. The film’s depth comes from its characters and their struggles with mental health, from Susanna’s depression and borderline personality disorder to Lisa’s highly toxic and sociopathic tendencies. Other struggles such as eating disorders, schizophrenia and pathological lying are scrutinised in the behaviours of other inmates. The film’s perspective, through the eyes of the troubled and intelligent Susanna, help to view the women and doctors involved with empathy, as they all struggle to carry on with their lives in the the shadow of their illnesses

By Anneka Honeyball


Sucker Punch

When it comes to exaggeration, inaccuracy and just total lack of realism, Rob Snyder pretty much ticks every box in his 2011 release Sucker Punch. While Sucker Punch is undeniably a fantasy film, it relies on such overused and offensive stereotypes that it really loses all merit. It’s especially lacking in depth with its treatment of mental health. Set in a mental institution, Babydoll (Emily Browning) attempts to cope with her circumstances by envisioning a brothel in which she teams up with other dancers to escape a lobotomy. Not only are the women in the film sexualised and totally one dimensional, but it suggests that the ideal mental escape for women is in a sexualised fantasy, and it is through this that they supposedly find solitude and empowerment. While the film does not intend to touch on the complexities of mental health, it still simplifies it beyond what is acceptable, and is worsened by the generalisation of women’s mental health and the lack of attention to individual characters and their conditions.

By Hollie Geraghty


James Mangold’s 2003 film Identity is a prime example of unrealistic mental health depictions in film, and another on the long list of offenders from the horror genre. For those that haven’t seen the movie – look away now – as it explores the psyche of Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince) struggling with dissociative identity disorder under the guise of a motel murder mystery. Similar in its execution to the more recent Split, Rivers’ mental health is used as a tool for destruction – painting his illness as directly linked to being a psychotic killer incapable of controlling his powerful ‘personalities.’ Capitalising on the debatable legal process of DID, horror films often use mental health as a vehicle to present us with scary, unhinged murderers with little to no empathetic qualities – implying that those suffering from these issues are categorically frightening and highly dangerous. Identity doesn’t stray from this model, ending on Rivers being taken over by the strongest, most deadly, and psychotic personality at the cost of his very being. Much like Shyamalan’s ‘Beast’, Mangold leaves the bitter taste of mental health being boiled down to the monstrous – an unrealistic, painfully reductive quality in an otherwise excellent horror film. Whilst DID is debated fiercely in both the scientific and legal worlds, maybe these films are trying to offer a ‘they can’t help what they can’t control’ answer – but in the end, this reads as a harmful representation of those struggling with similar disorders in the real world.

By Ashleigh Millman

Silver Linings Playbook

If Silver Linings Playbook’s means of littering lingering close-ups of apparently significant objects, like a handful of brightly coloured pills, or Tiffany’s non-conformist black nails aren’t enough to convince you of the film’s endeavour to usher in the human quandary of nurturing positivity, then maybe its deceptively fresh take on romance will. Yes, beyond its many layers of quirky imperfections, Silver Linings Playbook smells of formulaic Hollywood razzle-dazzle, pumped up with enough indie eccentricity to pose as something original. Rendering it relevant to the modern day where mental illness has just begun to find a voice, central characters Pat and Tiffany are each dealt a mental affliction which never gets fully explored (in fact Tiffany reads more as a means for Pat to explore his own affliction and develop himself than anything else) and cures itself through the remarkable power of dance and newfound intimacy. How dazzling.

It would be silly to read Silver Linings Playbook as really, absolutely encouraging the idea that love really is all you need to heal mental illness. But still, its inclusion of the big-kiss, happily-ever-after ending unveils the novelty of their illnesses, that the very purpose of them was to put forward a few never-been-done-before traits simply to pose an obstacle to surmount.

By Sophie Trenear


About Author

Former Film Editor for The Edge, second year history student, Irish dancer and film enthusiast. My biggest inspiration is by Bear Grylls. Yes Bear Grylls. Originally from West London.

The Edge's Film Editor 2017-2018, David has an unabashed love for all things Dave Grohl, Jack Black and Lord of the Rings. A compulsive liar who shouldn't be trusted, David once beat legendary actor David Hasselhoff in a hot dog eating contest and is best friends with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, they speak on the phone three times a week.

Deputy Editor of the Edge and FilmSoc President 2016-17. BA Film and English graduate, but not ready to accept it yet. Has an affinity for spooky stories, cats, and anything deep fried.

MChem Chemistry

Third year Film and English student living in D.C., self-proclaimed go-to Edge expert on Cloverfield, Fall Out Boy, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Loves mostly those three things.

Editor [2016 - 2017], News Editor [2015 - 2016]. Current record holder for most ever articles written by a single Edgeling. Also Film & English Student and TV Editor for The National Student. Main loves include cats, actors and pasta.

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