10 Great Films About Mental Illness and Addiction

Since I’m a clinical psychologist, I’m often asked, “What are your favorite films about mental illness?” I’ve certainly seen many, many films over the years which depict various mental illnesses and addictions, and they range in quality from wonderful to horrible.

The worst films perpetuate common myths and misperceptions about mental illness, including:

  • People with mental illness are violent.
  • Parents cause mental illness in their children.
  • Psychiatric hospitals are dangerous, scary places filled with sadistic, uncaring staff.
  • Strait jackets are still commonly used to subdue psychiatric patients.
  • Therapists don’t hesitate to have sex with their patients or violate other personal boundaries.

Let me reiterate that all of the above statements are NOT true. But it’s still far too common to see these inaccurate and negative messages portrayed in films.

On the other hand, there are many terrific films about mental illness and addiction. Let me share ten of my favorites. To be included on my list, all of the films had to include one or more of the following themes:

  • The illness is accurately portrayed.
  • The illness does not define the person.
  • One can still have a fulfilling life despite having a chronic illness.
  • Treatment and support are essential in managing any illness.
  • Everyone’s path to recovery is different.

Based on these guidelines, here are 10 of my favorite films about mental illness and addiction, in no particular order.

Rain Man (1988)

This popular, Oscar-winning film tells the story of Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) a man with autism, and his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise). The characteristics Raymond displays are typical of the rituals, habits and pockets of brilliance displayed by many people with more severe autism. The brothers’ adventurous cross-country road trip is challenging and touching as they learn how to connect and appreciate one another.

To Write Love On Her Arms (2014)

Based on the true story of Renee Yohe (Kat Dennings), who dealt with addiction, abuse, and self-harm, this film shows how Renee’s friends, including Jamie Tworkowski (Chad Michael Murray) rallied to provide her with love and support to ensure her safe entry into a residential recovery program. Tworkowski went on to found the nonprofit organization “To Write Love On Her Arms,” which now provides support and resource information for people struggling with mental illness and addiction.

As Good As it Gets (1997)

Melvin (Jack Nicholson) is a crusty, reclusive novelist living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Melvin has little social interaction but gradually begins a relationship with Carol (Helen Hunt), a waitress who works at the diner where he eats lunch every day. The film shows Melvin’s gradual recovery from OCD as he takes a chance by letting others (including a neighbor’s dog) into his life. The film does a great job of depicting some of the common symptoms of OCD and also shows how considerable improvement is realistic and attainable.

My Name is Bill W. (1989)

This film depicts the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the 1930’s by World War I veteran Bill Wilson (James Woods) and Ohio surgeon Dr. Bob Smith (James Garner). AA (and its many spinoff organizations) based on the “12 steps” have gone on to become the largest international network of support for many different addictions and has positively impacted countless numbers of people for more than 80 years. Even today, “Friends of Bill W.” meetings can be found around the globe.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

This Oscar-winning film is the true story of mathematics professor John Forbes Nash, Jr. (Russell Crowe), who lived with chronic schizophrenia. The movie realistically portrays the paranoia, delusions and hallucinations he faced as part of his illness. Nash ultimately went on to great academic success, including being awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. (Personal trivia fact: My father and John Nash were in high school together.)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) lives with bipolar disorder, which contributed to the loss of his wife and his job. After treatment in a psychiatric hospital, he moves back in with his parents. He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who offers to help him try to get his wife back if he will be her ballroom dance partner. The film portrays bipolar disorder realistically and shows the challenges that people with the illness face in managing difficult emotions and close relationships.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014)

This riveting documentary about legendary country singer Glen Campbell describes his onset and eventual diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. It showcases his 2011 “Goodbye Tour,” while showing the effects of the unpredictable, progressive illness on him and his family. Their love and support for him are abiding and palpable. His poignant single “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” conveys the profound loss brought on by this devastating illness.

The Soloist (2009)

This film is based on the true story of Los Angeles Time columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) who befriends Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless Juilliard-trained musician who lives with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. The bond between the two shows the importance and value of social support and the film accurately depicts the symptoms and the difficult and uneven course of this severe mental illness.

Inside Out (2015)

This Oscar-winning animated film creates characters to represent the emotions of joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust inside the mind of Riley, a young girl who is facing a difficult time. Her emotions ultimately learn to work together to help Riley get through the challenges she is facing. Although arguably not technically about mental illness, the film has been lauded by teachers and mental health experts for bringing accessible positive messages and themes about mental health and managing feelings to children (and adults).

Out of the Shadow (2006)

This documentary tells the true story of Millie Smiley, a woman with chronic schizophrenia and the impact of her illness over several decades on her, her spouse, children and extended family. The film was photographed, produced and directed by Millie’s daughter Susan. It is real, engaging, heartbreaking and ultimately, uplifting. If I had to pick only one film from this entire list to show to someone to help them better understand the impact of severe mental illness, this would be it.

So that’s my round-up of 10 great films that deal with mental illness and addiction. They are all widely available through Amazon and other retailers. Please check them out! For reviews of many more movies, I recommend the excellent comprehensive reference book “Movies and Mental Illness” (4th edition) by psychologists Danny Wedding and Ryan Niemiec.

Here’s a question: What other films about mental illness or addiction are your personal favorites, and why do you like them? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

  • tonyhausner

    One Flew over the Cuckoo Nest

  • Aileen Miles Prather

    It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

  • Randi Silverman

    No Letting Go wwwnolettinggomovie.com

  • Lynn Warner

    Netflix recently added a film called “To the Bone” about anorexia. It was powerful.

  • Marshein

    What about “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”?

  • Heather Jacobson

    Lars and the Real Girl

  • I need to see this film. I’ve heard it was really good. Thanks!

  • Certainly a classic film, but not my personal favorite because it shows some of the negative stereotypes about mental illness and treatment that I hope we have moved beyond.

  • I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

  • Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Tristan Leder

    I really liked “Helen” with Ashley Judd. It’s a look at the devastating effects of severe chronic depression on a person, their life, and the people closest to them. While I’ve never been as sick as the woman in the story (and they take her treatment a bit into the extreme), I found it to be a pretty fair and accurate representation.

  • I’ll be sure to check it out. Thank you Tristan.

  • Duane King

    I would add: Breaking the Waves by Lars Von Trier and Its Kind of a Funny Story

  • Duane King

    And what about Fisher King with Robin Williams and Leaving Las Vegas with Nicholas Cage.?

  • Thanks for these recommendations!

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