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The 20 best movies about mental illness that get it right

Let's face it, mental health isn't the most inviting subject when it comes to cinema. Stigmatised, complex, and often misunderstood, it can be off-putting at best and easy to misrepresent at worst. That's why it's so important to recognise, and celebrate, movies that treat mental illness with integrity; an issue that will affect approximately one in four people at least once in their lives. 

It's not just about being bold enough to address the subject, but also that the best movies about mental illness represent it in the right way. Below you'll find the films that do. There's no schlocky exploitation here. No cheap delusion as lazy plot device. No raving killers or quirky heroes who were imagining the alien conspiracy all along. Whatever tone they take, whether gritty, light-hearted, or even abstracted, these are the films that understand the gravity of their subject matter, and hit it with respect. And even, sometimes, a few laughs. Read on for the best movies about mental illness this World Mental Health Day.

20. X + Y

The story: Having landed a spot on Great Britain's team at the International Mathematical Olympiad, a maths prodigy (Asa Butterfield) finds new friends and confidence on a trip to Taipei.

What it tackles: A criminally under-seen British movie, X + Y (renamed A Brilliant Young Mind in the US) depicts an autistic mind, specifically the way that savant Nathan (Butterfield) sees the world as a result of the spectrum condition (autism on its own is not a mental illness). It's a terrific performance from Butterfield, in an tricky role that avoids sentimentality and elevates the movie to being more than just the English Rain Man.

19. The Virgin Suicides

The story: Based on Jeffrey Eugenides's novel, five teenage sisters are effectively put into confinement by their religious parents after one of them commits suicide.

What it tackles: Sofia Coppola's harrowing movie pulls no punches in its depiction of depression which, in the case of the five Lisbon sisters, turns into a sort of group experience leading to a tragic suicide pact. It aligns the condition with puberty and growing up, as well as showcasing how outsiders (in the movie, a group of boys attracted to the sisters) sometimes don't comprehend how mentally affected people are.

18. Benny and Joon

The story: A cinephile (Johnny Depp) starts up a relationship with the mentally ill Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) when he moves into her apartment, shared with her brother Benny (Aidan Quinn).

What it tackles: Though it received some criticism for sanitising schizophrenia, Benny & Joon succeeds due to the winning trio of lead performances, especially from Mary Stuart Masterson as Joon. It's a turn that isn't over-sentimental and, unlike some movies which cover mental conditions, doesn't stop her character from interacting and connecting with those around her.

17. We Need to Talk About Kevin

The story: Adapted from Lionel Shriver's novel, a mother (Tilda Swinton) has to come to terms with her son and the terrible crime he has committed.

What it tackles: Brilliant in depicting the potential tragic consequences of antisocial personality disorder and how it affects those closest to the sufferer, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a bleak, but vital, watch. It deals with the condition from a human perspective rather than utilising it for shock value, and Ezra Miller is sensational as the troubled older Kevin, with Swinton also excellent as his empathetic and believable mother.

16. The Hours

The story: Charting the lives of three women of different generations, who are all affected by the novel Mrs. Dalloway, including author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman).

What it tackles: Adapted from Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours covers how mental illnesses, including depression and bipolar disorder, can lead to suicide. Opening and closing with Woolf's suicide, the movie also shows pregnant housewife Laura (Julianne Moore) consider suicide, only for the movie's central novel to change her mind. Kidman won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Woolf, which is both stunning and moving.

15. The Fisher King

The story: Saved from suicide by a homeless man (Robin Williams), a radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) seeks redemption for a mistake he made that led to a restaurant massacre.

What it tackles: Both lead characters in Terry Gilliam's comedy-drama are linked by a single event. Bridges' radio DJ has sunk into depression for causing a caller to commit a massacre, which directly affected Williams' Parry who begins to suffer with schizophrenia after his wife is killed in the same tragedy. The movie also features one of Gilliam's finest on-screen moments, involving a romantic dance in a train station.

14. As Good as it Gets

The story: A misanthropic author with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Jack Nicholson) strikes up a relationship with a single mother (Helen Hunt) and a friendship with a gay artist (Greg Kinnear).

What it tackles: While the movie's view on how to deal with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be over-simplified, Nicholson is terrific in depicting the condition's potential symptoms, including the fear of contamination, and how it can alienate people from those around them. You'll be happy to be by his side though, thanks to the movie's perfect mix of humour and heartbreak.

13. What's Eating Gilbert Grape

The story: When love comes into his life, Gilbert (Johnny Depp) has to adjust how he cares after his younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio) and obese mother (Darlene Cates).

What it tackles: A heartfelt adaptation of Peter Hedges' novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape features DiCaprio excelling in one of his earliest roles as Arnie, who suffers from a developmental condition, including autism. The movie also features depression in the form of Bonnie (Darlene Cates), who has given up on life after the suicide of her husband.

12. Finding Nemo

The story: When his son is captured, a clownfish afraid of the open ocean sets out on a journey to bring him home, accompanied by a forgetful companion.

What it tackles: It might seem left-field, yet Finding Nemo contains several smartly conveyed mental illnesses. Dory is the obvious case, suffering from short-term memory loss, which certainly isn't played just for laughs, and later in the film, the fish Nemo meets in the dentist have exhibit from obsessive-compulsive disorder to anxiety issues. Marlin, Nemo's father, is also very much motivated by anxiety stemming from trauma. Pixar would later tackle depression with similarly crowd-pleasing emotional finesse in Inside Out.

11. Donnie Darko

The story: Plagued by visions of a giant bunny, a teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) is manipulated into carrying out crimes as he fears the world is about to end.

What it tackles: A cult classic, Donnie Darko is open to numerous interpretations, but can serve as a welcome and believable account of how schizophrenia can affect someone without a violent outcome. Donnie (Gyllenhaal) eventually - seemingly - sacrifices himself for the good of his family and the others around him. That might not actually be the case, but that's the genius of the movie: we are right in Donnie's shoes as even we don't know what to believe.

Continue to Page 2 for more of the best movies about mental illness

Ian Sandwell
Entertainment journalist who's an avid FrightFester and genre lover, as well as being a Marvel geek.