7 Movies and Shows That Normalize Mental Health Issues
For far too long, we’ve been aware of the growing mental health crisis in America and beyond, but what comes after awareness? Even though the topic of mental health is gradually becoming less stigmatized and more commonplace in the public discourse, we still need to translate it into action. Just like our bodies, we need to be actively working to take care of our minds—because mental health is health. That’s why on May 20, Topic is joining more than 500 brands and cultural leaders for the first-ever Mental Health Action Day. Spearheaded by MTV Entertainment Group, the historic day aims to turn decades of mental health awareness into tangible action.
If the first step to action and change is visibility around a subject, then entertainment can play an integral role. Seeing characters on screen who are living with mental health issues not only normalizes conversations, but also helps viewers who are experiencing the same thing feel less alone. And that support could be crucial in inspiring someone to take action. While Mental Health Action Day is intended to be a day of mass visibility, Topic is dedicated to portraying and normalizing mental health stories every day. Here are seven titles that present a diverse range of experiences and even more diverse ways people grapple with, manage, and triumph over mental illness.
Benedikt is the most radical, inspirational, and charismatic prime minister Iceland may have ever had, but underneath his exciting persona he’s hiding an immense personal secret: he has a history of bipolar disorder. After he takes office, his once-quirky and unorthodox ways start to devolve into erratic and manic behavior, like making impulsive decisions that impact all of Iceland, obsessing over writing a musical, and experiencing states of psychosis with increased frequency. Benedikt’s dual presentation is a realistic depiction of someone with bipolar disorder: sometimes it can fuel something in you that galvanizes an entire nation, but sometimes it takes you far away from reality.
Sometimes your mental health journey will lead you to unexpected connections. When Gabriel, the drummer in a rising rock band in Dublin, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he joins a treatment program where he meets Christopher, a 17-year-old kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, during a very heated soccer match. Though they have absolutely nothing in common, they strike up an unlikely friendship that helps them understand themselves better than any therapy session ever could. The film is exemplary in its portrayal of mental illness: it’s honest in showing its ugly bits, but it also deftly adds levity as a reminder that neither the subject nor those who live with it are inherently tragic.
A war series that is decidedly anti-war, “Commandos” is both a gripping action thriller and an existential character drama exploring the devastating effects of PTSD. After a mission goes terribly wrong, Commander John de Koning leaves the military for civilian life, but when an old enemy returns, he’s drawn straight back into a life of violence and bloodshed. Once the hunters, his former platoon brothers have become the hunted, and de Koning is forced to watch as they succumb not only to a mysterious killer, but also the destructive forces of their PTSD. Captivating in its action and suspense without glamorizing or glorifying war, the series has a clear message: nobody leaves war unscathed.
If you couldn’t tell by the title, Maria Bamford wants to talk about mental health—kudos to her for broaching the topic in the most direct way possible. In this series, the comedian sits down with artists and mental health professionals to talk candidly about mental illness, share experiences, and laugh over deeply personal anecdotes. Not only is it wonderfully therapeutic for her guests to have an outlet, but it’s even more therapeutic for viewers who might realize that mental health is painful, but it can also be funny. And, hey, if Tom Arnold can talk about his alcohol and drug abuse and childhood traumas with no shame, doesn’t that make you feel a little more comfortable talking about your own?
Harry is an autistic Uber driver who loves to get to know his passengers, even if his questions are a little too personal, his advice is unsolicited, and his first impressions are far from perfect. Sure, he may have accidentally revealed a bride-to-be’s pregnancy, but he also helped her recognize the exciting leap she’s about to take. OK, so maybe going around town trying to track down a little boy who left his stuffed animal makes him look a little creepy, but he just wants to reunite a kid with his favorite toy. And when he’s not driving passengers, he’s trying to work up the courage to ask out his crush at the ice cream drive-thru. Luckily, he has the unconditional love and support of his dad, who offers him sage advice on life, love, and dealing with other people. It’s clear that through all his social fumbling, Harry is just trying to offer the same kind of guidance that his father offers him.
We’re all afraid of something—heights, spiders, clowns (who could blame us?)—and that’s OK, because the world is a scary place. But what if being cured of your biggest fear meant having to come face to face with it? Would you do it? Neuroscientist Dr. Merel Kindt has developed a groundbreaking method for treating phobias that invites the patient to totally immerse themselves in their fear. A woman with a fear of cats is invited to sit in a room with a cat and to touch it. A girl with a needle phobia is asked to receive a shot without struggling. It may sound like torture, but Dr. Kindt’s treatment has been proven to work. Exploring the psychology behind phobias and the ethical complexities of treating them, this fascinating docuseries gives new meaning to “face your fears.”
Mental illness is a spectrum. Sometimes it’s a hereditary disorder that takes a lifetime to overcome, other times it can be triggered by specific external circumstances—like a presidential administration, for example. Through candid soundbites and stark black-and-white portraits, this short film presents the constant state of anxiety that the last four years have been for countless Americans. When a diverse group of people are asked to describe how they feel about Trump’s presidency, their responses range from angry to scared to “sick to my stomach.” Hopefully, these individuals, along with millions of Americans across the nation, sighed a huge sigh of relief this November.