Over 300 million people suffer from the mental health condition, depression. It’s a staggering number and one which should not be overlooked. It is encouraging to see just how many movies about depression and mental health exist, not only recently but over the last 70+ years. Instead of subjectively discussing which films are “best,” in this article we will aim to address the films that adequately inform and enlighten the viewer on the realities of having depression. By organizing the films by release date, we can also touch on how specific mental health themes have changed or progressed over time.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Seventy-two years ago, It’s a Wonderful Life was released. One of the few of its kind in the mid-1940’s, it sparked conversations that have led it to gain the reputation of being one of the most enlightening films about depression.
Depicted in a series of flashbacks, It’s a Wonderful Life opens at the beginning of the third act. The lead character stands on a bridge, in an incredibly depressive state, suggesting he is about to commit suicide.
Then, his life flashes before him with the help of an angel sent from Heaven. The audience sees just how different everyone’s lives in the film would be if our protagonist never existed.
The film emphasizes the darkness that those suffering feel and how their truths can greatly differ from the actual realities of the situations at hand.
The film Interiors not only sheds light on the individual with the mental illness but how it affects those closest to them.
In the film, the mother character suffers from depression and dementia. The father character forms an unwanted, yet serious resentment towards her and the fact that he has to care for her in her current state. In turn, the mother character attempts suicide, and the unhealthy cycle continues on to involve their daughter.
Interiors is an honest, authentic look at how the cycle of resentment can significantly affect loved ones.
Ordinary People (1980)
Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People, revolves around a middle-class family grieving the death of one of their sons from a boating accident.
Overcome with grief and guilt, the younger son falls into a deep depression and becomes suicidal.
While his father does everything he can to help him cope, his mother remains in a total state of denial.
Ordinary People serves as a raw, genuine look at just how delicate the human psyche is.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
The 1999 American drama directed by Sofia Coppola centers around the lives of five sisters living in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit during the 1970s.
The Virgin Suicides opens with the youngest sister attempting suicide. Her suicide attempt forces the girls’ parents to keep them all under claustrophobic, surveillance-like watch. Their confinement throws all five sisters into depressive and isolated behaviors.
The film is told from the viewpoint of a group of neighborhood teenage boys. The narrator of the film is the adult version of one of the boys allowing the audience to see the perspective of the sisters through their actions with each other as well as how society saw them.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
You may not have realized that Girl, Interrupted is the true account of the author’s 18-month stay at a psychiatric hospital. The author, Susanna Kaysen, was struggling with depression as well as a personality disorder. In her account, we meet a variety of characters, all whom which affected Kaysen.
Kaysen says that her stay at the psychiatric facility allowed her to realize things about herself while she watched others work through their personal situations.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that Girl, Interrupted became such a renowned film about mental illness.
The Hours (2002)
Academy Award-nominated adaptation, The Hours, depicts three women from different eras suffering from depression during a single day.
The three stories are equally balanced throughout the film, focusing on how each character goes through cycles of feeling out of control and having their lives in shambles forcing them to rebuild.
Also, the film shows that each of the three women is loved and cared for. Contrasting to many films that stress the hardships and loneliness that the individual suffering from depression faces.
The Hours is not a traditional view of mental illness or depression. However, it still stands as being one of the most provoking interpretations.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The dark comedy, Little Miss Sunshine, shows that at times, depression can be a family affair.
Many movies about depression center around one character’s tribulations and how it affects the others. However, Little Miss Sunshine is the opposite. The titular character, Olive, is the youngest of a family who all suffer from some form of depression. All of them, except Olive that is. Throughout the film, Olive grows to see that her family sees her as a ray of light in their darkness, hence, the title of the film.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
It is no secret that mental illness comes with its fair share of stigmas and stereotypes. World’s Greatest Dad tells the story of a man’s son who dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident. The father (played by late actor Robin Williams) stages his son’s accident to look like a suicide.
The father writes a suicide note as his son, expressing his battle with depression. In reality, the father character is the one with clinical depression, allowing him to articulate such a letter.
World’s Greatest Dad shows the strange shift that occurs when death becomes involved. People who were once turned off by the idea of mental illness are suddenly now sympathetic. Instead of the town thinking that his son was a low-life jerk, the father’s suicide letter convinces the town that his son was a talented poet with a serious mental illness.
It’s Kind Of A Funny Story (2010)
Depression is a mental illness and a way of perceiving the world. Depression doesn’t have to come from trauma, toxic living environments, abuse, or family issues.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story depicts the idea that depression can be a series of self-constructed negative beliefs and worries. These constant thoughts can spin the individual into a world of depression and suicide.
The protagonist of the film, Craig, has a relatively easy life yet has a destructive fear that if he ever fails at anything, his life is more or less over. He doesn’t feel that he will ever be good enough or will succeed in the way he wants. After acknowledging the path of self-destruction he’s on, Craig admits himself into a psychiatric facility.
Critics argue that Melancholia is one of the greatest films about depression and mental illness that has been made, ever.
Melancholia tells the euphoric story of depression in conjunction with the fate of our world. The lead character (played by Kirsten Dunst) has a complete void for any potential consequences for her actions. She lives a self-indulgent life all while a massive planet is headed directly to collide and destroy Earth.
The destruction of Earth is a metaphor. It shows just how destructive and devastating depression can be.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
The Oscar-winning film, Silver Linings Playbook, tells the story of a man with bipolar disorder (played by Bradley Cooper).
Having been recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital, he moves back in with his parents and desperately tries to reconnect with his estranged wife. In the process, he meets a woman with clinical depression (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who throws his life and game plan for a total loop.
Some may feel that they don’t have much in common with a clinically depressed individual or someone with bipolar disorder. Yet, director David O. Russel humanizes certain uneasy stereotypes in an eye-opening manner that is impossible to ignore.
Silver Linings Playbooks is truly a beautiful film for so many reasons. It sheds light on the fact underneath it all, we are all human beings, dealing with life’s curve balls the best we can.
The film, Cake, explores a different form of depression than most others.
Individuals who experience chronic pain, illness, or disability often develop immense depression.
In Cake, the protagonist is not only grieving the loss of her son from a car accident but also dealing with the chronic pain she experiences from the crash as well.
Anomalisa sends the very important message that sometimes (often most times) things aren’t always what they seem.
Sometimes the person you imagine is the happiest is fighting demons you know nothing about.
Anomalisa tells the story of Michael Stone, an individual who is an expert in helping others live their best lives. However, Stone himself is clinically depressed. The film depicts the existential tribulations of living with depression as well as honing in on the notion to never judge a book by its cover.
Hollywood: Shedding Necessary Light on Mental Illness
Mental health awareness is critical. There are so many negative stigmas and false information that gets passed around daily. In turn, the individuals suffering are terrified to reach out and get help for fear that they will too be labeled and judged.
Through the use of cinematography, Hollywood writers, directors, and producers are working to shed light mental health issues like depression. It goes without saying that their efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Movies about depression can truly make an enlightening and crucial difference in the lives of those suffering.