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Explore 5 Drama Films and TV Series About Mental Illness

From hard-hitting dramas to action-packed superhero stories, see the different ways writers can approach the topic of mental illness.
by David Young on July 12, 2022

As screenwriters, we're often tasked with writing dramatic stories that are notoriously difficult to tell with even a modicum of sincerity, honesty, and fairness. Take mental illness for example — despite it being common in our global population, it can be easy to turn characters into caricatures, over-generalizing their experience and stereotyping them into poorly fashioned archetypes, or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, avoid the topic altogether.

But if you're interested in studying examples of films and TV shows that address mental illness, whether through the lense of an irreverent dramedy or a harrowing biopic, we put together a list that might help.

I Know This Much Is True

This television miniseries stars Mark Ruffalo as twin brothers Dominick and Thomas. His hard-hitting performance showcases the numerous issues that compound upon each other when your one and only sibling deals with something no one seems to understand.

Set in the 1990s, this drama moves back in time now and again to show the warning signs of Thomas’s descent into paranoid schizophrenia. Dominick shoulders the burden of being the point person and advocate for his brother, even when it pains him most. This story shows how even the closest relationships can be strained by tackling such an illness.

Please Like Me

An Australian television series, Please Like Me is an exploration of real-life issues that show up in both dramatic and comedic moments — just like real life.

After being dumped by his girlfriend, protagonist Josh realizes that he’s gay and gets to deal with a whole new chapter in his life. But while he gets to explore this exciting discovery, he begins having to care in a way for his mother, who recently attempted suicide. Josh’s social awkwardness sets the tone for a young man dealing with real issues like a mother’s mental struggles (and first dates), while still keeping some levity in each new development of the story.

A Beautiful Mind

A classic story and a biographical drama to boot, A Beautiful Mind is the feature film based on the life of celebrated mathematician John Nash.

Russell Crowe performs tremendously to show Nash’s struggle with the onset of paranoid schizophrenia, a narrative that begins for Nash in grad school. His wife and his friends watch as the man they knew begins to suffer delusions, leading him into a secret double life with “assignments” that only he can perform. As he learns and adjusts to the reality of his struggle, Nash also develops a method to keep the hallucinations at bay while eventually making waves enough in the subject of game theory to earn him a Nobel Prize in economic sciences.

This is a powerful story about overcoming the obstacles that a mental illness can bring on. While not every person should address their mental illness in the same way, this film also shows what people can accomplish, even after receiving such a serious diagnosis.

United States of Tara

How do you make the story of a mother with a serious mental disorder funny? Ask Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody. She explained her approach to writing United States of Tara, a series about a woman, played masterfully by Toni Collette, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder.

"I was nervous at the outset. The pilot couldn’t be 'sitcomy' but, at the same time, it had to be funny. It was a big challenge to find the humor in everyday life and not poke fun at the disorder. And I wanted to be as sensitive as possible."

Tara switches between identities, called “alters” (like alter egos), including that of her normal self, one of a doting housewife, and one of a rebellious teenager. While her alters may manifest with no warning at all, Tara’s family has grown used to the conditions of this disorder, and they help her cope in every way they can.

This show demonstrates just how good having a supportive family can really be for anyone with a mental illness or disorder.

Moon Knight

In a slightly different vein, one Marvel superhero gets to represent his mental illness on television.

Moon Knight is also known as Marc Spector, but his alter egos include Steven Grant and Mr. Knight. Marc becomes the object of interest of the Egyptian moon god, Khonshu, and his experiences with dissociative identity disorder (or something that looks a lot like it) make him the perfect terrestrial avatar for the god.

Of course, some of what you see in the series mirrors the aspects of DID, but Marvel is here to tell a big story using some real-life elements alongside fantasy and sci-fi. While the earlier four mentions are about real-life effects on people, Moon Knight is something both reminiscent and different.

Conclusion

I know my life has been affected by mental illness, just as so many others have. Whether you’re there to watch those stories, or you want to tell your own, remember that these issues are real and touch more lives than maybe we tend to realize.

Stories about mental health are becoming more common these days — we're talking about it as a society more often than we used to — so, when writing these stories, be kind, be honest, and be aware.

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