Mental Illness in Movies, TV & Video Games: Exploring Positive Portrayals

May 1, 2024

Let’s face it. The last few years have been, at best, a challenge. As people have dealt with the combined stresses of worldwide uncertainty, social upheaval, and a devastating pandemic, everyone’s mental health has been under a steady stream of attack. For many, their favorite movies, television shows, and video games provide solace, comfort, and an escape from day-to-day stress. When done correctly, visual media can also show an accurate and positive representation of mental illness in movies, television, and video games. 

Recently, audiences saw an example of mental illness portrayed on streaming in Baby Reindeer, the newest series from Netflix. The show tells the story of a woman who becomes obsessed with a local bartender/comedian, who she nicknames “Baby Reindeer,” and how his own demons impact his response to her fixation.

Jessica Gunning as ‘Martha’. Image via Digital Spy.

“I think one of the things that this show does really effectively is get at deep, dark feelings, getting at the way that attraction is much more complex and varied and dirty than we usually give it credit for in media, you know?” said actor, writer, and comedian Guy Branum in an interview with NPR.

“Like, this was not a simple case of a person being, you know, bothered by somebody who was mentally ill but somebody who found appeal in it.”

Based on true events, the show stars the writer and creator Richard Gadd, who was the victim of stalking in his early days as a comedian.

Accurate Representation of Mental Illness in Movies & Media

While movies, TV shows, and video games can be comforting, empathetic representations of mental illness in pop culture can also provide an anchor for those fighting their own minds every day. That’s why it’s so important to accurately represent mental illness in film on the screen.

“The portrayal and representation today of mental illness in media has had challenges in regard to continuing to perpetuate stigmas and stereotypes on how mental illness is experienced in real life,” says Stanley Tam, Director of Counseling at NYFA. “This includes the experience of the individual and those surrounding the individual. The nuances of what it’s really like for people on-screen and in-print to go through mental illness continue to be difficult to translate onto media, be it short form or long form.”

Let’s take a look at some recent – and some not-so-recent – constructive depictions of mental illness and how they help change the narrative on these afflictions that affect so many.

Movies About Mental Health
TV Shows About Mental Health
Video Games About Mental Health

Positive Portrayals Of Mental Illness, By Genre


Biopics: The Florist (TBD)

While not completed, the upcoming biopic The Florist has also been announced. Carla Gugino is set to play iconic actress Vivien Leigh. The film will put a spotlight on Leigh’s challenges with bipolar disorder in the 1960s. Biopics are one of the most impactful ways to tell true stories of mental illness, as illustrated in biopic films like NYFA Guest Speaker Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind and The Hours.

Drama: Girl, Interrupted (1999)

“Well, you don’t look crazy,” says a taxi driver to Susanna Kayson (Winona Ryder) in James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted. That one line epitomizes a common barrier to mental health treatment, the notion that if someone doesn’t “look” sick, they “aren’t” sick and thus don’t need help.

mental illness in movies

Susanna knows something is wrong with her, but until she attempts suicide, no one believes her. That she is eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder – and successfully treated (not a Hollywood ending either, as the film is based on Kayson’s memoir) – gives hope to many who suffer in silence imposed by disbelieving family and friends.

Horror: The Babadook (2014)

The very best horror movies go beyond jump scares and gore to take something in the real world and bring it to life. In Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), the villain is a vengeful ghost that comes to life from a book. But the real villain is depression – the depression a single mom can feel when they’re overwhelmed and overstressed.

scary movies about depression

As Mr. Babadook possesses his mom Amelia (Essie Davis) and threatens son Sam (Noah Wiseman), we see her go through many of the same patterns as severely depressed people. Even in the end, Mr. Babadook isn’t defeated; he’s locked away in the basement and must be periodically “fed.” “It was quiet today,” Amelia tells Sam after a feeding, hinting at the same sort of good days and bad days people can feel with depression. The lesson is clear – depression might never go away, but it can be managed, and happiness can be found.

Animated (Children): Inside Out (2015)

For Inside Out, Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen made a genius move and enlisted the help of UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner to craft a moving portrait of the conflicting emotions inside 11-year-old Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) mind as her family relocated.

mental illness in films

While one could write an entire book on the film’s depiction of mental health and emotion, it stands out for highlighting the positive impacts of emotions we normally bill as negative: Disgust (Mindy Kaling) helps her avoid things she shouldn’t eat or touch, Fear (Bill Hader) gets her to stop and think before taking rash action and Anger (Lewis Black, of course) helps her stand up for herself. It shows every emotion has value, knowledge that is vital to mental health.

Animated (Adult): Adventure Time (2010-2018)

Most wouldn’t expect a series about the last human and his talking dog to be so frank about mental illness, but Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time tackles it head-on.

mental illness in kids shows

The Ice King (Tom Kenny) seems to be just a crazy old man who wants to kidnap princesses, but in the season 4 episode “I Remember You,” we learn he was a good man whose magical crown has slowly eaten away his identity in a fashion, not unlike Alzheimer’s. While it shows the devastating impact something like this can have on the people you love, it also shows how empathy and compassion can help those who suffer.

Documentary: Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (2021)

Admittedly, it’s debatable if Morgan Neville’s documentary about the legendary chef and raconteur Anthony Bourdain presents a definitively positive take on mental health given Bourdain’s suicide in 2018. But in some ways, it reinforces the need for working on yourself internally, as no amount of external factors will heal you.

mental illness in documentaries

Bourdain seemingly had it all – a hugely successful career, a world-traveling lifestyle, a taste for things both fine and simple – but it still wasn’t enough. The film is an honest depiction of how no amount of fame and fortune can make mental illness disappear – and for that reason, maybe one of the best examples of mental illness in movies on this list.

Biopic: The Soloist (2009)

The Soloist is a poignant film based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers. The film follows a former prodigy musician battling schizophrenia and homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles and the unlikely friendship between Ayers, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, and Steve Lopez, a journalist played by Robert Downey Jr.

Through powerful performances, The Soloist successfully explores themes of friendship, mental illness, and the redemptive power of music. The film joins the list of compelling biopics that every aspiring filmmaker or actor should watch if only to see the performances of Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., who was recently nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Oppenheimer. Image via Mubi.

Superhero: Jessica Jones (2015-2019)

While many of Marvel’s films have to quickly handwave any mental health issues their heroes face (for example, the perfunctory treatment of Tony’s alcoholism in Iron Man 2), their TV shows like WandaVision, Moon Knight, and especially Jessica Jones have taken a closer look. Jessica’s (Kristen Ritter) brutalization by Kilgrave (David Tennant) is the source of her diagnosed PTSD, something all her super-strength can’t battle.

jessica jones PTSD

But while not all of her coping mechanisms are the healthiest, her commitment to connecting with more of Kilgrave’s victims, and finding healing together, reinforces the importance of being seen and heard by those fighting mental illness in the real world and how with mental health there truly is strength in numbers.

Musical: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019)

Many people loved Tony Shalhoub’s role in Monk, even though people with OCD saw it as boiling down their mental illness to a comedic personality quirk. Rachel Bloom would not fall into that trap with her portrayal of Rebecca in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

crazy ex girlfriend mental illness

While the wild musical numbers and general hijinks would lend themselves to a similar reading, we instead see Rebecca presented not as a quirky hero or crazed villain – but as a human being, flawed and fantastic all at once. By not reducing her to such extremes, Bloom makes Rebecca a beacon to others who know their mental health is more nuanced than the binaries of “sick” or “well.”

Video Game: Celeste (2018)

In Matt Thorson and Noel Berry’s Celeste, Madeline wants to climb Celeste Mountain just to say she did it. As a player, you guide Madeline through a series of punishing platforming challenges as she makes her way up the mountain, but before long, you realize it’s not a simple platformer.

mental illness in video games

Madeline is being chased up the mountain by a manifestation of her own fears and depression – dubbed “Bad-eline” – and reaching the top isn’t just about accomplishment but catharsis. When she inevitably reaches the top – and comes to terms with her darker self – that catharsis is felt by the player too. 

The Healing Power Of Storytelling

There have been more and more conversations about mental health in the public square recently, driven by people courageously standing up and telling stories about their own battles. Fictional or otherwise, these stories have the power to remind people who struggle with mental illness that they aren’t alone. When telling stories about mental illness in movies or visual media that you create, don’t forget to remember the human and approach it from an empathetic point of view.

For more mental health resources, see the links below, as well as our recommended movies, tv shows, and video games that include characters and plots about mental health. 

Movies About Mental Health

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
  • Ordinary People (1980)
  • Strange Voices (1987)
  • The Dream Team (1989)
  • As Good As It Gets (1997)
  • Fight Club (1999)
  • The Virgin Suicides (1999)
  • A Beautiful Mind (2001)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
  • Canvas (2006)
  • Lars & the Real Girl (2007)
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
  • Melancholia (2011)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
  • The Skeleton Twins (2014)
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
  • Horse Girl (2020)

TV Shows About Mental Health

  • The United States of Tara (2015)
  • BoJack Horseman (2014)
  • Lady Dynamite (2016)
  • Big Mouth (2017)
  • 13 Reasons Why (2017)
  • Euphoria (2019)
  • After Life (2019)
  • Yellowjackets (2021)
  • WandaVision (2021)

Video Games About Mental Health

  • Aether (2008)
  • To the Moon (2011)
  • Firewatch (2016)
  • Stories Untold (2017)
  • Gris (2018)
  • Limbo (2018)
  • The Longing (2020)
  • What Comes After (2020)
  • Lost Words: Beyond the Page (2020)