The Top 5 Mental Illnesses, and Their Best Portrayals in Film

Episode by Brandon

Hello and welcome to Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast about movies, maladies, and mental health! I’m one of your hosts, Brandon Gregory, and I normally have my co-host Maria Milazzo with me, but I’m doing another solo episode due to some scheduling issues.

First, though, a quick shout-out to Maria. She’s been crazy-busy remodeling a new house, but she has not dropped out of this podcast. We’re still talking every few days about what to do, and she’s still doing all of the editing for this podcast. So you may not have heard from her in a few episodes, but she’s putting in a lot of work behind the scenes to make me and this podcast sound good, and that’s something I’m really grateful for. Just wanted to give credit where credit is due, so thanks, Maria!

Editor: “Oh, by the way—you’re welcome!”

And now, on with the episode…

There are over 200 classified mental disorders, but some are more common than others. Since this is a podcast about movies and mental health, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the top five mental illnesses and look at what I think are their best portrayals in film. There might be some surprises in here for you, as some of these characters are not explicitly stated to have these conditions, but I think they’re good representations nonetheless. That said, here we go!

1. Anxiety Disorders: 19.1%

Anxiety disorders are the most common classification of mental illness. You probably know quite a few people that struggle with some form of anxiety, whether it’s generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, or anything else. As it’s one of the most common conditions here, it’s also one of the most understood, but there’s still a stigma against admitting to this. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder symptoms:

  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
  • Being irritable
  • Having muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
  • Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep

And one common thing you’ll see in all of these is that it’s possible to have these symptoms and not have the disorder, or anything wrong with you. What makes this a condition worth diagnosing and treating is if you have these symptoms to such a degree that it interferes with your life. That’s the difference.

Now, despite this being such a common set of conditions, there aren’t a lot of movies that really focus on this. I think there are some characters that have a touch of anxiety, but it’s usually something they overcome quite easily. There was one character I found who has these conditions to a degree that really interferes with her life.

Character: Amelie Poulain in Amelie (2001), who I believe actually has Social Anxiety Disorder, not Generalized Anxiety Disorder

We have a lot of sympathy for Amelie in the film because we see what’s going on in her head. She has this rich inner life, she wants to help people, and she truly wants to connect with others. What’s striking about this film is that it doesn’t just show Amelie worrying a little bit and then moving on anyway. She just literally cannot interact with people in a normal way a lot of the time. She constructs these elaborate plans to help people without interacting with them, to hopefully meet the cute boy without having to interact with, well, anyone. It’s an understated part of this film, but it’s so important. There’s nothing logical about Amelie’s anxiety, and I think she knows that, but she can’t stop it from happening, and that’s totally accurate for anxiety.

In the end, this isn’t a story about Amelie learning to be normal; it allows her to have this anxiety and still find happiness. That’s one thing I loved about this. So many other films will show anxiety, or depression, or anything else on this list, and the film ends with the character saying, “Oh, well, I guess it’s all in my head, I can be normal now.” There’s no such moment in this film, and I loved that.

2. Major Depression: 7.2%

Depression is common, but still frequently misunderstood. Most people think depression is sadness, but that’s not correct. That can be part of it—although it’s not always—but there’s much more to it than that. Depression is something I know very well. It’s not sadness so much as emotional paralysis, an inability to feel happy. Being physically incapable of happiness doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sad, although it’s not a far jump to get there. But there are some important physical symptoms too that many don’t know about.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

But then we get to the physical symptoms:

  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment – And this is important. Chronic pain is one of the biggest signs of depression, yet almost nobody talks about it.

Character: Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

So, I just mentioned that depression is not sadness. One thing I loved about the portrayal of depression in this film is that Charlie is never really sad. Empty is probably a better word, or maybe numb, but he’s not sad, and so many movies miss the point on that. Throughout the film, Charlie is like a cup with holes in it, and we just see all the joy drain out of him until the climax of the film, but he never complains, he never shows signs of being sad. If you want to know what to watch out for with depressed friends, this is a great film to show you that.

Another thing I really related to was that Charlie kept trying to participate in life. Even when it was hard for him, even when he totally sucked at it, he participated. Now, Charlie isn’t exactly Mr. Personality in this film, but we’re still rooting for him because we know he’s struggling and he still does it. With depression, you often drop out of a lot of activities in your life, but it’s not necessarily because you don’t want those things—it’s because you don’t have the energy for them. A lot of times, when I’m depressed, I also try to keep participating in life. And that’s one thing I love about this film, is, for the first part at least, Charlie’s friends invite him in even while he’s depressed and just allow him to be depressed. Those are great friends.

Anyway, this is a depiction of depression that really understands depression, and its treatment, and that’s very rare to see in film.

3. ADHD: 4.4%

ADHD has this reputation in society for being benign or annoying at worst, but it’s one of the most commonly misunderstood—and underestimated—conditions on this list. People joke all the time, like, “Oh, I forgot something at home, I must have ADHD.” Just a few weeks ago, I heard a coworker telling another coworker about how his young boy must have ADHD because he’s really rowdy and doesn’t like to listen, and coworker #2 said, “They used to just call that being a boy.”

Society tends to label any inattentive or hyperactive activity as ADHD, but it’s much more specific, and usually much more severe. ADHD can severely inhibit a person’s ability to succeed in traditional ways, and often leaves those people to forge their own paths to success rather than do what normal people do. Some are able to do this; some, unfortunately, have trouble figuring it out and spend their lives just thinking they’re failures.

Let’s talk about symptoms. ADHD involves inattention and impulsivity, and there are some other caveats required for a diagnosis.

Inattention symptoms include:

  • Overlooking or missing details, making careless mistakes in your work
  • Having problems sustaining attention, including conversations, lectures, or lengthy reading
  • Not seeming to listen when spoken to directly
  • Not following through on instructions and failing to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
  • Starting tasks but quickly losing focus and getting easily sidetracked

Impulsivity symptoms include:

  • Fidgeting and squirming in their seats
  • Leaving their seats in situations when staying seated is expected, such as in the classroom or in the office
  • Running or dashing around or climbing in situations where it is inappropriate or, in teens and adults, often feeling restless
  • Being unable to play or engage in hobbies quietly

As many people have already noted, there are a lot of people who have these symptoms to some extent. It’s like my coworker said above, don’t they just call that being a boy? Well, here’s where the real difference lies. To be ADHD, they must also meet the following criteria:

  • The symptoms are typically more severe than a normal person—so, yes, everyone gets distracted or fidgety sometimes, but few would describe it as a problem that interferes with work or school.
  • The symptoms can’t be controlled. This is a big one. If your kid is really rowdy, maybe it’s ADHD, but your kid could just be an asshole. People with ADHD really can’t control these behaviors, even though they really want to.
  • The symptoms must significantly interfere with the quality of life. So, yes, everyone has these symptoms to some extent, but if they’re not a problem, guess what? You don’t have ADHD. You have to have these problems to such an extent that they hold you back.
  • There can be no other explanation for the symptoms. Kids in unstable homes often have trouble paying attention to things. People with bipolar disorder frequently have these symptoms when manic. If there’s another plausible explanation for these symptoms, it’s probably not ADHD.

Because ADHD has this reputation as kind of a joke, there aren’t a lot of film characters that are stated as having ADHD. But I think there are some characters that have it and are good representations of it. One that comes to mind is Juno MacGuff from the movie Juno. That’s not the one I chose, though—I think there’s one that’s a better representation.

Character: Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon (and the sequels)

I think the film actually opens up with Hiccup saying he’s different from other Vikings. And his father echoes this sentiment, saying things like “He doesn’t listen,” and, “He has the attention span of a sparrow… I take him fishing, and he goes hunting for trolls!” And there are a lot of films that stop there, and that’s what ADHD is: a few jokes about inattention and not fitting in. But this film goes deeper.

Hiccup tries so hard to fit into his neurotypical society, he tries to find success by doing the same things as everyone else, and he just can’t do it. He really wants to do it, he feels terrible about not doing it, but he can’t do it. And how he finally does find success is in playing to his individual strengths, which are very different from those of everyone else. He has to find his own way to success. And that is so typical for people with ADHD. When they find something that works for them, they’re typically very good at it; but if you make them follow the same paths to success that other people do, they’ll just keep falling down, and it’s crushing to those people.

That’s one thing I love about this film, is it’s not about Hiccup learning to fit in with everyone else and do what they do, it’s about finding the value in what Hiccup is good at and allowing him to do things in a way that makes sense for him. I think that’s something anyone with ADHD can relate to, and I was glad to see it portrayed so well in this movie.

4. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: 3.6%

PTSD is a bit different than the others on this list because it’s not something you’re born with; it’s something that happens to you, like a scar on your emotional self left by a severe injury. That doesn’t make it any less serious than anything else on this list. PTSD can be a big deal, and I’m glad the people that have it are able to have that recognized and get treatment.

Common symptoms of PTSD:

  • Flashbacks
  • Avoidance places, events, or objects that are reminders of the trauma
  • Being tense or easily startled
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Distorted feelings of guilt or blame
  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event

Character: Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver dealt with a pretty prominent problem in the 70s, and that was veterans coming back from the Vietnam War with psychological damage. By the time this film came out, I think most people were familiar with the term “shell-shocked,” which was kind of an unofficial predecessor to PTSD, and a lot of soldiers were coming back from Vietnam with this condition. Here’s the thing about this film: PTSD was not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980—four years after this film came out. So Travis has this condition, but there’s no official diagnosis. And no one wants to admit that they’re just crazy.

In this film, we see Travis struggle with his own nature. He learned to deal with problems using violence in Vietnam, and we keep seeing him return to that problem-solving method when he doesn’t know what else to do, kind of like the fight-or-flight response we see in other people with PTSD. Eventually, as he keeps failing to solve his problems, we see him return more and more to how he dealt with that traumatic time in his life, leading us into the film’s explosive finale.

If you don’t know much about PTSD, it can be hard to describe, and that’s exactly what we see in Travis. He knows there’s something wrong with him—in fact, we even see him reach out for help a few times—but he can’t articulate what’s wrong with him, and no one else in his life can either. With no explanation and no way of closing that gap on his own, Travis is exceedingly lonely. It’s that tragic loneliness that’s the most poignant thing about this complex film.

5. Bipolar Disorder: 2.8%

If you’ve listened to a few episodes of this podcast, you probably know: I have bipolar disorder. It’s a very serious condition. Increased risk of suicide actually gives it an effective mortality rate of almost 30%, and it can wreck your life in a number of other ways.

To have bipolar disorder, you must have alternating (or sometimes overlapping, that’s fun) symptoms of both depression and mania. I went over depression above, so here are the symptoms of mania:

  • Feeling very “high” or elated
  • Having lots of energy and increased activity levels
  • Insomnia
  • Talking really fast about a lot of different things
  • Being agitated or irritable
  • Racing thoughts
  • Thinking they can do a lot of things at once
  • Doing risky things, like spending a lot of money or having reckless sex

Character: Pat Solatano from Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Now, I love this film and I relate to it a lot. That’s why our very first episode was about this film, so there’s a lot more detail in that episode if you’re interested. I’ll give the Cliff Notes version here. Basically, Pat is manic through the entire film, so that’s the side of bipolar we see.

One little detail they got right was the manic fixation on specific ideas. We see this when Pat wakes his parents up in the middle of the night because he has to talk about Ernest Hemingway, but we also see it on a larger scale as Pat obsesses about getting his life together so he can get back with his ex-wife. That’s really an obsession of his throughout most of the film, and then he drops it with little fanfare. I do that. I mean, I don’t obsess about getting back together with my exes, but I hyper-focus on some very specific things. I’ll start obsessing over, say, hypothetically, writing the perfect movie review, and then a few hours later, I have a small collection of movie reviews and a website for them. (You can find that on BrandonTalksMovies.com, by the way.) And before you know it, I have a podcast too.

I also related to how Pat enthusiastically dives into everything, every action, every conversation, but never really thinks about whether what he’s about to say or do is appropriate. I think Pat always wants to do the right thing, but he really has no filter, which gets him into trouble sometimes, including a disastrous conversation with Tiffany in a diner. (Don’t worry, Pat—I’ve been there too.)

Also, quick note: most of the time, if someone with bipolar stops taking their meds, it’s while they’re manic. And we see Pat really struggle with whether he wants to continue taking his meds as he’s manic through this film. In the end, he decides that stability is a good thing and goes back on them, but the struggle was good to see portrayed so honestly.

So that concludes this episode of Peculiar Picture Show! If this is your first time tuning in, our typical format typically centers around one film per episode with a deeper dive, but we do have some mini-episodes like this from time to time.

You can catch us online at PeculiarPicture.show, where you can stream all episodes and catch some bonus content. Additionally, I write my own movies reviews at the aforementioned BrandonTalksMovies.com, and I have some of my mental health writing at MonsterOnMyBack.pub. You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/peculiarpictureshow. And if you enjoyed this episode or just have something to say, please leave a review for us on iTunes or anywhere else.

So, that’s it! Thanks for listening, and I’ll see ya next time!

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