3 American Films That Oversimplified Mental Health (And One That Got It Right)

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woman consulting a ladyh with depressionWith influential names and a vast following, Hollywood is no doubt one of the greatest influencers in society. Today, with the advent of globalization, Hollywood has become embedded in most of the cultures in the world. Without question, it has shaped the views and opinions of many about social issues.

For years, mental illness has been a subject of many American films, with Hollywood classics like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) topping the bill of psychological thrillers. Today, mental health issues are still present in movies and TV shows. But whether they depict these issues correctly or not is the question. Find out in these four popular films about mental illness.

To the Bone (Marti Noxon, 2017)

To the Bone is an original Netflix film about Ellen, a patient suffering from anorexia nervosa. Together with a handful of other patients struggling with eating disorders, Ellen enrolled in an anorexia treatment center.

To the Bone has a good intention: to raise awareness about an otherwise underrepresented mental condition. But, the way it did so may be questionable. It mainly credited Ellen’s eating disorder to her dysfunctional family. This is clearly inaccurate, as multiple factors cause eating disorders, including societal pressures.

The movie also lacks diversity, creating the impression that only white, privileged women suffer the condition. There was only one male patient in the show, and even his story of recovery was not discussed enough.

The film is more than just an irresponsible portrayal of the disorder: it can trigger recovering anorexics, with its detailed depiction of calorie-counting, laxative-consuming, and food-refusal behaviors. On top of that, the producers decided to cast Lily Collins, a former anorexic who had to lose weight for the role.

13 Reasons Why (Netflix, 2017 to present)

Perhaps it was Shakespeare who first romanticized suicide. But in the 21st century – with all the suicide awareness campaigns going on – self-inflicted harm is still being glamorized. A very recent and well-known example is the Netflix Original series 13 Reasons Why, adapted from a novel of the same name. The show implied that suicide is caused by one thing. In the case of the protagonist (Hannah Baker), high school bullying led to the act.


Based on the experiences of diagnosed patients with mental illnesses, many factors could make a person suicidal. Arguably, the most problematic thing about the series is its graphic and traumatizing portrayal of an act of suicide. The show did little to highlight suicide prevention. Instead, it presented suicide as an effective tool for revenge, a dangerous idea to plant on the minds of vulnerable viewers.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

Scorsese’s Taxi Driver had a good take on social isolation and loneliness. However, his job on Shutter Island in 2010 did not follow suit. To keep this section free of spoilers, let’s limit the discussion to the problematic points of the film. First, it has a stereotypical representation of people struggling with psychosis. Patients in the asylum are either dangerous, childlike, or unable to fend for themselves.

Second, while it is successful in presenting mental condition treatment options in the ‘50s and delusional disorder, Shutter Island has a heavy-handed treatment of an already very complicated mental health issue. The madman-plot was too complex, too intense. Its ambiguous ending left many viewers confused.  It did inspire a case study, though.

Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)

As it turns out, films don’t need to cast the biggest names in Hollywood or use gray clouds and dramatic color grading to be effective in telling stories about mental health. Hollywood films only need to be accurate, as is the case of Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out. With her family’s recent move, Riley initially showed symptoms of adjustment disorder with a depressed mood. The film showed that depression does not discriminate and can happen to anyone over a short period.

At a crucial point in the film, the ‘Headquarters’ turned gray, an illustration of what might have been a symptom of major depressive disorder – Riley was burnt out. It could also be a picture of the numbness that she started to experience, as a result of repressing sadness and forcing joy. In the end, the film tells its audience, especially the young ones, that at some point in their lives, they may feel sad, which is different from clinical depression.

Hollywood films should be more than just a visual feast, nor a springboard for many pop culture-based anecdotes. This is why to present mental health in big or silver screens, it’s crucial to consult psychology professionals. And while it’s important to represent these conditions in a creative and engaging picture, Hollywood should tread carefully so as not to romanticize or oversimplify the issues that some people struggle with every day.

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