Mental illness, especially depression, frequently becomes the setting for compelling dramas in television and popular movies. Perhaps this is because the situations and character struggles are so real and can be easily identified with by wide audiences.
While their primary focus is to provide some measure of entertainment, movies about depression can actually provide some therapeutic benefit. More than simple escapism, films can provide an outlet for thoughts and feelings.
“When we are feeling depressed, inspiring movies can serve as a kind of timeout from the way we are feeling,” says Howard Pratt, DO, behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. (CHI). “In those couple of hours, the right film can [be uplifting],” he says. “Films show us different perspectives and lives different from our own. In this way, a movie’s story gives us access to experiences and emotions that can help us feel better.”
Here are our 15 Best Movies That Help with Depression, as clinically reviewed by the team at Gratitude Lodge.
Good movies evoke a response in viewers. Even those who may be emotionally distant or have trouble expressing themselves emotionally can find themselves in tears or side-splitting laughter during a movie. Releasing emotions provides us with a cathartic effect, which can help us become more comfortable expressing our emotions.
Watching movies can help us gain a better sense of our own lives and our place in the great scheme of things. Storytelling remains a powerful medium because we can see ourselves in the story. We may be compelled to a higher level of gratitude after seeing a particularly tragic scenario played out on screen, and be more thankful that our life isn’t so problematic. Or we may be able to better understand our own situation and reactions through how it is interpreted on the screen.
Movies give us a much-needed break from real life, even a movie about a condition we struggle with like depression. We are transported away from our own reality to a different time and place and can focus on something else for a while. This much-needed rest from reality can be an important therapeutic benefit that should not be overlooked as mere escapism.
Physically, movies can also trigger the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, followed by dopamine, which produces feelings of ease and pleasure. This physical reaction can provide welcome stress relief and relaxation to an otherwise troubled mind. Laughter releases endorphins that can be excellent for reducing stress and depressive mood symptoms.
Each of the following movies can be beneficial to help those suffering from depression. Each film portrays a different scenario dealing with depression and the characters’ struggle. Not every film has a positive ending, which is true to life. However, some patients with depression and/or substance abuse issues may learn more about themselves by viewing a close situation on the screen. These movies that help with depression can also be valuable to interpret the complicated issues of depression for a patient’s family, bringing them a better understanding of their loved one’s condition and its struggles.
Claire Bennet, played by Jennifer Aniston, has become resigned, hostile, and dependent on pain medication because she’s struggling with chronic pain after surviving a car accident that killed her son. Her recovery gets complicated as she encounters a suicide, a lawsuit, and the man responsible for the accident. Chronic pain is an invisible illness suffered by an estimated 50 million Americans.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
Sixteen-year-old Craig Gilner, played by Keir Gilchrist, voluntarily seeks help in a hospital after contemplating suicide. He bonds with patients in the adult psychiatric ward and eventually learns from his experience that he can get through the rest of his life with the help of his family and friends. Also starring Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis. A real journey of self-discovery is portrayed as Craig gleans life lessons from other patients in individual and group therapy.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Incoming freshman Charlie Kelmeckis, portrayed by Logan Lerman, suffers from clinical depression and PTSD. Charlie’s friend committed suicide and he has suffered the trauma of sexual abuse. On his first day of high school, he becomes friends with Patrick and Sam. The story follows how Charlie deals with the ups and downs with his new friends, relationships, inner conflict, and repressed memories. Also starring Emma Watson, Joan Cusack, and Dylan McDermott.
The Virgin Suicides (1998)
The Virgin Suicides stars Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnet, Danny DeVito, and James Woods, in a mystery about fantasy, love, terror, repression, sex, and death. A group of curious teenage boys in the suburbs of mid-1970s Michigan observe five beautiful sisters from across the street. Traditional versions of family life and love are challenged, as well as the boundaries of affection, responsibility, and acceptable behavior.
In a play on the word “melancholy,” Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland play in this odd story where Melancholia is the name of a rogue planet that crashes into earth, causing its destruction. The story depicts the lives and relationships of a handful of people leading up to the end of the world. Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged by events. This film raises serious questions about dealing with emotions under stress, painting melancholy people as more stable.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie play in this vivid portrayal of a woman named Susanna’s experiences in an American psychiatric institution in the 1960s. Based on the book by the same title by Susanna Kaysen. After attempting suicide, Sussana develops relationships with other women in the ward. Her journey reflects on the meaning of being mentally ill, struggles with her treatment, learning how to commit herself to become ‘well,’ and changing her relationship with how she engages in medical therapy. Winner of an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role by Angelina Jolie.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Follow the funny story of the Hoovers, a multi-generational family starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, and Toni Collette; also starring Alan Arkin. They vividly portray a troubled family riddled with constant friction that are transformed while on a road trip out west together. They endure one calamity after another, which forces the family to shift. The problematic vehicle becomes the symbol of their family, only functioning when everyone pitches in to contribute. Through this, they discover that their differences can actually complement each other instead of inciting friction.
Silver Linings Playbook 2012
Nominated for best picture of the year and winner of an oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role by Jennifer Lawrence, this romantic comedy-drama follows Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, who was released from a psychiatric hospital and moved back with his parents. Pat has bipolar disorder and is trying to win back his wife. Pat meets Tiffany, a young widow with borderline personality disorder, who offers to help him in exchange for joining her in a dance competition. Pat, his father, and Tiffany reflect on their relationship as they cope with their personal situation. Also starring Robert De Niro.
This film very vividly and accurately portrays a common borderline personality disorder symptom called “splitting,” which often results in individuals with the disorder rapidly and frequently oscillating between idealizing/loving and devaluing/hating important figures in their lives. Look for the scene in which Pat makes a cutting comment that deeply upsets Tiffany, whereupon she explodes and verbally eviscerates him on a public street.
The Hours (2002)
This film, winner of an oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role by Nicole Kidman, is actually three stories about different women in different decades. In 2001, Clarissa, a New Yorker, prepares a party for her AIDS-stricken long-time friend. In 1951, a pregnant housewife, Laura, escapes her mundane life by reading. In 1923, Virginia began writing the book that would later connect her to Laura and Clarissa. Also starring Meryl Streep and Toni Collette. Each of these women deal with suidide in their lives
Garden State (2004)
This film follows Andrew, played by writer and director Zach Braff, a depressed, heavily medicated, struggling young actor/waiter who returns to his hometown after his mother’s death. He meets Sam (Natalie Portman), another troubled character who supports him in sorting through his issues. Andrew’s long-time estrangement from his family is vividly portrayed and affects his attempts at recovery.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Nominated for best motion picture of the year and winner of two oscars for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role by Casey Affleck, and Best Original Screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan. Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler (Affleck), a troubled, socially isolated man who is working as a janitor. Lee is unexpectedly called to return to his hometown upon his brother’s death, where he finds himself responsible for his 16-year-old nephew.
This film powerfully portrays grief, along with the additional complications of recent and past losses. Look for symptoms of Lee suffering from prolonged grief disorder or persistent complex bereavement disorder.
In this film that showcases a character with depersonalization disorder, Hudson Milbank (Matthew Perry) seeks psychiatric help because he finds himself feeling detached from the world around him and unable to connect with his surroundings both physically and emotionally. He finds solace through falling in love with Sara Harrison (Lynn Collins).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This somewhat bizarre film features a medical treatment commonly used to treat severe depression or bipolar disorder, called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) undergo the procedure in an attempt to erase one another from their memories after their relationship turns sour. Both characters battle severe depression and actually seek to “rediscover” their love for one another.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s classic from 1946 is often viewed during the Christmas holiday season, and few realize its potential for help with depression. Suicidal businessman George Bailey, memorably portrayed by James Stewart, is given a view of life as it would have been without him by the angel Clarence, played by Henry Travers. Also starring Donna Reed, Ward Bond, and Lionel Barrymore. Clarence allows him to observe a world without his many blessings, which forces George to realize just how rare and precious the good things in his life actually are, which instantly cures his depression.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Winner of five oscar awards (including Best Picture) and starring film legends Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and Debra Winger, this high-acclaimed film follows Aurora and Emma, a widowed mother and daughter with a loving but tempestuous relationship that is tested over the decades. The tapestry of their lives contains many weaves of love and disappointment, fear, uncertainty, and sorrow.
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