Films that accurately and sensitively capture the experience of individuals with depression can help us empathise with them, see them beyond their mental health condition, and learn to identify the symptoms of depression.

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Depression is one of the most common mental disorders worldwide (World Health Organisation, 2021). It is also often depicted in the movies, and this popularisation of depression in the media has facilitated many important conversations surrounding mental health. Through movies, viewers worldwide are given a glimpse into the world of an individual with depression. This allows them to learn much more about the disorder in a more accessible and relatable manner.

Movies about depression can act as psychoeducation. The characters provide insights on how symptoms can show up in a person’s behaviour and in their relationships with others. Through accurate depiction of depressive symptoms, audience may be better able to identify them in themselves or others around them. This can encourage early detection of depression.

Furthermore, movies tend to humanise individuals with depression. While characters are typically portrayed with their difficult life stories and daily struggles, they are not defined by it. Movies also cast light on characters’ strengths, individual personalities, and inherent emotional resilience.

This allows viewers to understand that people with mental disorders are more than just their illness. They are their own individuals as well. These scenes evoke empathy and more understanding for individuals who struggle with their mental health. Therefore, movies about depression have the vast potential to alleviate mental health stigma.

Can Watching a Movie Cause Depression?

Even though watching movies can evoke sadness, they do not cause depression. Movies can definitely be very immersive experiences. Through them, we develop attachments to characters and experience their highs and lows as if they are our own. However, despite the intensity of our feelings, they tend to be temporary and will fade over time. If you feel personally affected, remind yourself that it is okay to feel the intense emotions. The feelings you have are valid, and you can find outlets to express and ventilate your emotions. Nonetheless, these feelings generally will not persist beyond a few days.

Movies about Depression and Self-Harm

Some movies depict characters suffering from depression who display symptoms of self-harm. In general, self-harm involves inflicting pain and wounds upon oneself (eg in the form of cutting or burning). For viewers, these scenes can undoubtably cause discomfort. However, they reflect how depressive symptoms can manifest in self-destructive behaviours.

Here are some movies that involve characters who are depressed and engage in self-harming behaviour:

Thirteen (2003)

“Thirteen” is a movie by writer and director Catherine Hardwicke. This movie is semi-autobiographical, inspired by the life story of one of the actresses. The movie’s protagonist, Tracy, is an honours student in a middle school in Los Angeles. She is an overachiever but struggles to fit in with her peers in school. Besides facing difficult social situations in school, Tracy also struggles with her parents’ divorce. She exhibits some common symptoms of depression such as persistent low moods and low self-esteem.

When Tracy befriends Evie, a popular but wayward teenager in her school, she comes to learn more about substances and sex. Tracy begins to use these as avenues to cope. However, as Tracy faces more life stressors, her mental health continues to spiral. She copes with the feelings of depression through cutting. When Tracy’s mother, Melanie discovers her daughter’s self-inflicted injuries, she is distraught. Ultimately, the movie’s ending does not offer any satisfactory closure for Tracy or Melanie’s circumstances. 

The film sheds light on the grim realities of growing up with mental health struggles. Adolescents with mental health struggles tend to have difficult family backgrounds and peer relationships. The usage of substances and self-harming tendencies are outlets that they may utilise to escape their difficult emotions.

To Write Love on Her Arms (2012)

“To Write Love on Her Arms” (TWLOHA) is based on the true life story of Renee Yohe. Renee is the founder of the non-profit organization, TWLOHA, supporting individuals struggling with depression, self-harm, drug addiction and suicide. The movie depicts the difficulties that Renee faced with abuse and depression growing up. She coped with the traumatic experiences in her life through cutting. The long-term cutting behaviour resulted in scarring on Renee’s arms.

Later, Renee’s circumstances take a turn for the worse. At a school party, a schoolmate slips drugs into Renee’s drink and she developed an addiction to substances. Renee began to use substances regularly in pursuit of the pleasurable feelings of being high. Once, when Renee was unconscious from using drugs, a drug dealer sexually abused her. This incident made Renee realise that she needed to seek help. She reaches out to trusted schoolmates.

Renee then befriends a recovering drug addict, David, who gives motivational speeches. While awaiting her admission into a rehabilitation centre, David opens his doors to Renee. David assists Renee in the detoxification process, keeping her away from drugs and cutting. During this difficult withdrawal period, Renee meets David’s roommate, Jamie. As they confide in each other about their struggles, her resilience inspires Jamie and the latter invites her to share her story online. Renee’s compelling sharing sparked off the movement, TWLOHA, dedicated to helping others who struggle with their mental health.

The movie reflects how traumatic experiences in childhood can induce depression and self-harm. However, Renee’s story is also testament to the fortitude of individuals who struggle with depression and self-harm. Realistically, not every person who is depressed will create large positive societal changes. That said, it is important to recognise that people with mental health struggles possess their own strengths as well.

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

“The Skeleton Twins” is a movie by screenwriter and film director Craig Johnson. Its protagonists Maggie and Milo, are twins. In the beginning of the movie, the twins were estranged, living different lives across the country. Maggie and Milo both suffer from depression and battle suicidal thoughts. Their father had committed suicide when they were 14. In this aspect, the film depicts the high correlation of depression in family members. Moreover, it highlights one of the commonly known symptom of depression, suicidality.

Eventually, Milo attempts suicide by cutting his wrists and submerging his body in a bathtub. Maggie intends to attempt suicide by overdosing on pills. However, a phone call from the hospital about Milo’s suicide attempt interrupts her. She travels across the country to meet her brother. This creates opportunity for the twins to reconnect.

The reestablishment of relationship between Maggie and Milo invites them to reveal the struggles in their lives, including Maggie’s unhappy marriage and Milo’s preoccupation with past experiences with bullying. The life stressors rooted in interpersonal difficulties highlighted in Maggie’s and Milo’s situations are common for people who experience depression. On a brighter note, the film closes with the twins making major life changes and learning to accept their failure and flaws.

Movies about Depression and Anxiety

Besides depression, anxiety is a common mental disorder portrayed in movies. There is a tendency for individuals with depression to develop anxiety as well (Kalin, 2020). Movies are possibly an avenue for us to explore the relationship between these two mental health conditions.

Here are some movies on depression and anxiety:

Girl, interrupted (1999)

“Girl, Interrupted” is based on a memoir by author Susanna Kaysen. The story chronicles Susanna’s experience of being in a psychiatric ward. The movie depicts the journey of adolescent Susanna who experienced anxiety symptoms and overdosed on aspirin. She was then sent for a psychiatric evaluation and diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Individuals with BPD experience difficulties regulating their emotions. They tend to experience intense emotions, and often also have anxiety and depression.

When Susanna is admitted into ward, she befriends other patients, each with their own diagnosis of psychological disorders. The characters all have distinct personalities. This serves as a reminder for viewers to perceive people with mental health issues as individuals beyond their diagnosis.

With the help of her fellow patients, Susanna learns to navigate the psychiatric institution. The patients receive therapy and medication for mental disorders. However, the hospital enforces restrictions and sometimes cruel treatment on the patients. This acts as commentary on the harsh institutionalisation of people suffering from mental health conditions.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” was written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. The protagonist, Craig attends an elite high school. Besides engaging in social comparison with his peers, Craig faces pressure from his father to excel. Craig recognises his issues with managing stress levels. He consults a psychologist, who diagnoses him with depression and anxiety. Craig’s story highlights how environmental stress can play a big part in mental health struggles. This story especially relates to school-going children and adolescents who may face pressure to do well.

Despite taking his medication regularly, Craig still struggles with his mental health. In a bid to end his suffering, Craig formulates a suicide plan to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. However, he manages to control his suicidal urges and calls a suicide hotline. Craig heeds the advice to ward himself in a psychiatric hospital for his own safety. While completing the procedures, the fear that his friends may regards him as ‘crazy’ burdens him. He also decides to keep his hospital stay a secret. Such turmoil reiterates how societal stigmatisation of mental health issues can affect people.

After checking himself in, Craig begins to forge friendships with other patients. Similar to the patients in “Girl, Interrupted”, they are unique individuals with their own struggles. On the other hand, the hospital environment in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is more therapeutic in nature. Patients engage in different activities and hobbies to keep them occupied. This contrast to a sterile hospital environment tells viewers that psychiatric patients deserve respect and humane treatment, and to have their individual preferences and needs addressed too.

The Perks of being a Wallflower (2012)

“The Perks of being a Wallflower” is based on a coming-of-age novel by Stephen Chbosky. Charlie, the main character, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He experienced two main traumatic events in his life: the suicide of his best friend and being sexually abused as a child. Besides coping with his PTSD symptoms, Charlie faces other life stressors, such as worrying about his peers’ perception of him. He deeply desires friendships and fears being the unpopular kid. Charlie grows gradually depressed and anxious. The movie reflects that individuals with PTSD can experience comorbid anxiety and depression as well (Brady, Killeen, Brewerton, & Lucerini, 2000).

It is evident that Charlie’s PTSD flashbacks increase in intensity when faced with more life stressors. His mental health also deteriorates rapidly, such that symptoms of depression and anxiety recur. This occurs when Charlie witnesses the abuse of his sister by her boyfriend. Also, especially when he experiences conflicts with his friends and distances from them. This provides an insight for viewers into the reality of an individual with PTSD, anxiety and depression.

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Movies about Depression and Loneliness

Depression is at times portrayed in movies to be a cause of loneliness for characters. In fact, lonely people tend to experience more depressive symptoms (Mushtaq, 2014). There is much overlap between loneliness and depression, such as emotional pain and helplessness.

Here are some movies that depict both depression and loneliness:

Sylvia (2003)

“Sylvia”, directed by Christine Jeffs, follows the biography of Sylvia Plath. Plath was a renowned writer and poet of her time. The movie opens with Sylvia meeting her future husband, Ted. They fall in love and decide to get married. However, as the film goes on, Sylvia is depicted as emotionally fragile. She is both passionate and bitter in her marriage.

Having experienced the traumatic death of her father and symptoms of major depressive disorder early in life, Sylvia continued to struggle. She had the common symptoms of persistent low moods, problems with sleeping and thoughts of suicide. Eventually, after starting a family, Ted has an affair and moves out of the house. This plunges Sylvia deep into depression and loneliness, and who turns to poetry as her main outlet for expressing grief.

Arguably, the circumstances in Sylvia’s life perpetuated her depressive symptoms and her loneliness as well. This includes her unhappy marriage, her husband’s affair and the early death of her father. The movie shows how experiencing difficult life events can worsen depressive symptoms.

Helen (2009)

“Helen” is a movie directed by Sandra Nettelbeck that portrays how a woman overcame severe depression. She is a talented musician, but she slowly finds herself losing the ability to regulate her emotions. While in her inner struggle against depression, Helen attempts to stay emotionally connected to her husband and daughter. However, due to her depression, she feels a distance growing between her and her loved ones. Helen’s repeated breakdowns frighten her daughter and she begins to feel isolated. These difficulties in connecting with loved ones are common aftereffects of depression. This can be informative for viewers, as the impact depression has on relationships is often overlooked.

The social rejection from her loved ones causes Helen to spiral further into her depression. Helen attempts suicide unsuccessfully. During a hospital visit, Helen reveals that depression had precipitated her failed marriage in the past. She feared that the same fate awaited her second marriage. Fortunately, Helen is able to find solace in one of her students who had experienced depression as well. She encourages Helen in her treatment seeking journey, while not placing excessive expectations upon her. Helen’s student’s willingness to be non-judgmental, understanding and supportive was helpful for Helen. This interaction between Helen and her student can be a source of inspiration and guidance for viewers. They can learn about how to better support an individual struggling with mental health issues.

Helen’s family grows to become more understanding of her condition as well. They accept that she will need time to recuperate and move beyond her depressive symptoms. This film sheds light on how loved ones of individuals with depression are often affected. They too are required to adjust to the needs of the person who is depressed, in order to create a therapeutic environment for them.

Cake (2014)

“Cake” written by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz, depicts a woman’s journey with chronic pain. Claire, a former attorney was involved in a car accident. This resulted in the death of her son, chronic pain and physical disfigurement. The incident causes Claire to spiral into depression. She withdraws from people in her life, including her husband, except her housekeeper, Silvana. This social withdrawal is a common consequence of depression as well.

After conflicts with people in her life, Claire begins to experience suicidal urges. She copes through overdosing on her pain medication and abusing alcohol. Claire struggles but strives to continue living. She reflects on her grief and pain, and eventually finds peace in her thoughts. This movie highlights as well the resilience that some people suffering from depression have exhibited. Through Claire, viewers can better understand the inner conflict individuals with mental disorders can face when battling their suicidal urges.

References

Brady, K. T., Killeen, T. K., Brewerton, T., & Lucerini, S. (2000). Comorbidity of psychiatric disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 61(7), 22–32. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10795606/

Kalin, N. H. (2020). The Critical Relationship Between Anxiety and Depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 177(5), 365-367. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20030305

Mushtaq, R. (2014). Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health ? A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness. Journal Of Clinical And Diagnostic Research, 8(9), 1-4. doi:10.7860/jcdr/2014/10077.4828

World Health Organisation. (2021). Depression. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression