13 stories that portray mental health better than 13 Reasons Why

In the age of social media, portrayals of mental health in film are getting more attention. Last year, Netflix released a series adaptation of the young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. The series revolves around 13 tapes of the reasons why a girl committed suicide. It discusses, and reveals graphic images of, depression, sexual harassment and rape. Mental health experts have chimed in and said that these images are so graphic that they could cause the audience to imitate the things that happen in the show.  

The goal of the series was to start a conversation, but with images as graphic as those, the creators of the show might as well have ended the conversation for a watcher who actually deals with the mental illness they tackled.

Different media call for different storytelling techniques but, ultimately, most seek to show and not tell. Thirteen Reasons Why takes it a step too far when they show exactly how a girl ended her life. Starting a conversation doesn’t require graphic triggers. It’s arguable that good filmmaking can be seen in cases where a person’s reality is understood even when only implied.

Here are 13 stories that do a better job of portraying mean health than 13 Reasons Why.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

The funny thing about this film is that the main character himself is hesitant about the fact that he has a mental illness, a conundrum that most teens face today. It questions the difference between sadness and depression. It shows the difficulty of getting help, and learning to accept it if it’s being offered. Craig, the main character, has gone through extreme pressure because of school, and has been stress vomiting because of it. He’s been shrugging it off as no big deal, but he ends up looking down from the Brooklyn Bridge because of it. This film doesn’t show many graphic images, but it can start conversations about the Craig’s mental illness, and even the diseases of his fellow patients. The filmmakers achieve this through Craig’s train of thought, by making it simple and relatable to teens who are under the same kind of pressure.

Lars and the Real Girl

Lars is a single man living in a small guesthouse his parents left him, while his brother lives with his pregnant wife in the main house a few metres away. One day, he shows up to a dinner with his new girlfriend, a sex doll. This film not only deals with Lars’ mental illness, which is never officially diagnosed, but also with loneliness that some people feel. People do not shun Lars because of his sex doll girlfriend. Instead, they accommodate him and acknowledge the existence of his plastic lover. Lars, and the community he is in, build a life around his girlfriend. All of this is happening while Lars is seeing a therapist. It’s a testament to how the people around a mentally ill person can be supported and not put down, and acknowledges that mental illness is not a choice.

Girl, Interrupted

Trigger warning: This is one of the more graphic films in the list. This film’s setting is a mental ward and deals with the various mental illnesses of the patients. The portrayal of the mental illnesses is raw, and the film deals with the different spectrums of the illness, such as the total highs and the total lows. The routines of the patients, such as their daily medications and counselling sessions, are also exposed. Girl, Interrupted is considered to be a the  triggering film, but it isn’t comparable to 13 Reasons Why because it doesn’t romanticize or glorify mental illness.

Koe no Katachi

Don’t be thrown by the Japanese title. Koe no Karachi (English title: A Silent Voice) is a film about the bully and the bullied. The story revolves around a deaf girl, Nishimiya, who in elementary school, is bullied by Ishida because she is deaf. When Ishida takes it too far, Nishimiya is forced to transfer schools. Ishida starts getting bullied and is isolated by his classmates because he was bullying Nishimiya. This is a beautiful film about the ripples of mental health. It shows the relationships that each character builds and why they have difficulty maintaining them. The focus on Ishida’s character development as a bully is deeply interesting. The film does not only focus on the two main characters but also shows how their families deal with the consequences of their actions.

Inside out

Inside out is a creative children’s movie that revolves around Riley, which allows us to observe her growth from a baby to a teenager. The viewers of this movie gets a fair share of both Riley’s life and the life of the emotions living inside her brain. The emotions consist of joy, sadness, disgust, anger and fear. It is entertaining but educational to observe these emotions working together or against each other in creating the outcomes and actions of Riley. This film has an appropriate and easier to understand plot for the younger audience and portrays the roles of the emotions resulting in Riley’s actions.

IT (2017)

The movie IT is centred around the antagonist, Pennywise the dancing clown, and it with many forms of mental illness. Beverly deals with PTSD from her father sexually abusing her and Pennywise is the symbolism for the children’s fear. Pennywise plays mind games with his victims by mentally degrading the children through fear and manipulating them through their wants. Although “IT” is a horror movie, the portrayals of the character’s mental health plays a huge role in both feeding and defeating Pennywise.

Black Swan

Black Swan isn’t marketed as a thriller or horror movie but it definitely meets all the criteria of one. The film is set in the world of dance where young, talented and beautiful ballerinas are introduced and portrayed. The movie gets dark once reality is exposed, such as different mental health issues including eating disorders and psychosis.

Mary and Max

There are really not a lot of adjectives that can explain how beautiful and simple this stop motion film is. Mary and Max are the epitome of pen pals. Mary is an eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne. Max is an obese middle-aged man with Asperger’s syndrome. Through their letters, they develop a friendship because of their shared isolation and loneliness. The mental health in this film is honest and true. Mary and Max have problems that they tell each other about, and it leads to the support that both of them need.

Still Alice

What is it really like to slowly lose yourself is the question this film answers. Filled with great performances, especially Julianne Moore’s beautiful performance, Still Alice revolves around Alice Howland, an intellectual with the perfect husband, family, and all-around perfect life. Alice is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and what makes this film stand out is the pacing of the story. It starts with Alice right before she gets Alzheimer’s and the pacing when she starts showing signs and how the characters react to them is honest, true, and one of the most accurate portrayals of mental illness in film.

Silver Linings Playbook

After his wife cheated on him and after getting out of a mental hospital, Pat is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He is determined to get his wife back, but along the way he meets Tiffany, a recently-widowed woman who deals with depression. Their chemistry is magnetic because they show how people with mental illness interact, and point out that mental illnesses are not little quirks. Pat and Tiffany call each other out on their ugly sides and accept each other. They also point out the ignorance of the people around them. Crazy is not a word you use lightly in a circle of people who actually suffer from real mental illnesses.

Perks of Being a Wallflower

Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t show the suicide attempt or the sexual harassment. It has a rating of PG-13, which is for its sexual content. Charlie starts high school as a loner, not a new narrative in teen movies. After losing his best friend to suicide, Charlie makes friends with an eccentric group of people who introduce him to drugs, alcohol and sex. This film talks about everything, from loneliness to Charlie’s mental illness to sexual harassment and abuse. It even tackles the difficulties of coming out in a decade when cassette tapes were the norm.

My Mad Fat Diary

This title is questionable because it makes the whole series seem like it’s going to be just your average, everyday teen whining story. My Mad Fat Diary is far from that. Kind of. The series revolves around Rae, a fat girl who recently got out of a mental hospital and hasn’t talked to her best friend since being admitted. She was admitted because she kept trying to hurt herself after being severely bullied in high school. Set in the ’90s in a small town called Lincolnshire, Rae lives her life soundtracked to Oasis and the Stone Temple Pilots, while she struggles to adjust into a normal life, desperate to make connections even though her mental illness repeatedly prevents her from doing so. Rae can’t do the simple things, because of the little things in the past that hurt her greatly. My Mad Fat Diary is hopeful, and accurate. Despite being set in the past, it shows problems that teens still deal with today.

Dear Evan Hansen

Because Dear Evan Hansen is a new play, there isn’t much to know about it except for what is on the soundtrack and a questionable copy of the play online. Evan Hansen is a high school student who suffers from severe social anxiety. When Evan’s classmate, Connor, commits suicide, Evan pretends to be his best friend. Evan tries to help Connor’s family with their grief and loss. The play shows the power of social media in an effort to remember someone who has died. Somehow, it also shows how out of touch social media can be, how people can only provide so much comfort through a screen and a surface level of sympathy. Connor was an outcast, and no one stayed with him through his struggle. There was a mismatch between him and the people who wanted to help him. Evan had an acceptable form of mental illness. Even if he didn’t have friends, he was seen as the good kid by adults and people in authority. This play is a pure, and realistic portrayal of mental illness that is relatable because it touches on all perspectives.


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