Mental Health in Film: The 70’s to Now


I have bipolar disorder and have been diagnosed twice. Most days, I feel pretty good. In my opinion, with that mental disorder comes a deep grasp on creativity. Creativity fills my head with story ideas and the need to paint. Another part of that creativity is watching and enjoying films. It is fair to say that since the ’90s, the film industry has undergone a huge revolution of proper representation for mental health.

I’ll never forget when I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest directed by Miloš Forman from 1975. The images of mentally ill people taking their medicine and barely finding joy. It wasn’t until I went to a mental hospital that I realized how wrong that image is and how films like that distort people’s views of what it’s like to experience mental illness. Over the last 31 years of my life, the depiction of mental health in films has evolved as well as people’s perspectives. I am eager to see what’s next.

The first movie that pops into my head with inaccurate representation is The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola from 1999. The film follows a family of 5 daughters and their conservative and religious parents. The film contains scenes with the girls trying to make contact with boys in their neighbourhood. Watching this film made me feel as if the only time the girls felt happy was when they were connecting with boys. The film shows the girls connecting with the boys through notes in trash cans. The girls also use light signals similar to Morse Code. I find this troubling because since there’s no cure for depression, why would love be a motivator to get better? The girls make a suicide pact and the movie tragically ends with them all dying. Suicide is never romantic.

In the early 2000s, mental health representation started getting better. One of my favourite movies from that time is Charlie Bartlett directed by Jon Poll from 2007. Charlie Bartlett tells the story of a teenager named Charlie (Anton Yelchin) who lives with his depressed mother (Hope Davis) and has a father who’s in jail for tax evasion. I love the film because although the mom is depressed and medication is taken by many characters around Charlie, it is never shunned. Medication is shown as a way for people to cope with their mental health. Gradually, Charlie also becomes a pseudo therapist, helping many students. The film ends with Charlie finding hope and visiting his dad in jail which was a big struggle at first. Although it will never go away, healing is possible with mental health.

Fast forward to now, the 2020’s. One of my favourite eras because mental health awareness month is something that’s universally recognized, many celebrities are coming forward admitting to anxiety, and conversations pushing the urgency for more services are happening every day. A movie like All the Bright Places from 2020 is a beautiful example of that progress. The film follows Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), a bipolar teenager who finds love with the other main character, Violet (Elle Fannings). The film follows Finch’s ups and downs, but he’s still loved and accepted by friends, family, and Violet. Finch also sees a therapist and it’s casually mentioned. The movie shockingly ends with Finch killing himself. The suicide is approached in a way that he’s remembered fondly. The movie also makes sure to not go into details of why he did it. It was expressed as he didn’t want to live anymore. Nothing more. Nothing less. 

I prefer the version of suicide in All the Bright Places over Virgin Suicides. The film style of Virgin Suicides makes the suicide seem beautiful and full of filters. The parents up and move out of the neighborhood with no warning leaving the viewer confused and unsure of what really happened. In All the Bright Places, you never have visuals of Finch killing himself and just find out through Violet. Violet is full of grief, but vows to make her life beautiful as a tribute to Finch. 

I find myself being more transparent with my mental health these days. I find myself not hiding away as much or having to explain my “moods.” Films are making a big shift and so are people’s mindsets. Films are beginning to casually mention therapists, not feeling great, and having characters face anxiety. The changes show people as imperfect beings who are still learning how to make it in the world. These changes feel important because in all honesty, we all have no idea what we’re doing, so we may as well be transparent. I feel that the diversity of mental health also helps others become more empathetic. More kind. Our world is better for showing this.

I am hopeful for what’s to come. I know that films are going to continue to show characters thriving. Having suicide not be such a scary topic. Medication helps you get through your days. I know that my bipolar doesn’t define me. We’re all much more than our mental health.