(Updated 5/20/20) A list of movies about mental health and substance abuse – includes PDF printable discussion questions
By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP
Movies About Addiction & Mental Illness
The following is a list of films about substance use and mental disorders that are appropriate to show in treatment settings. This post includes movie summaries and downloadable PDF handouts with questions for discussion. Please note that some of the films on this list are graphic and may not be appropriate for children or adolescents.
(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Hint: The handouts contain spoilers; do not provide until after the movie ends.
103 minutes (1 hour, 43 minutes), R-rating for language and drug use
Summary: Julia Roberts plays a mother, Holly, whose 19-year old son, Ben, surprises her by returning home for Christmas. Ben is newly in recovery; his addiction has placed a tremendous strain on the family in the past. Ben’s younger siblings are happy to see him, but Holly, fearing that he is not ready, is apprehensive. That evening, the family attends church. When they return, they find their home burglarized and the dog missing. Ben blames himself, believing someone from his past took the dog to get his attention; he leaves to look for the dog. Holly goes with him, but they’re later separated, and Holly attempts to track Ben. Eventually, she ends up at an abandoned barn where she finds her son on the floor, unresponsive. The movie ends with her administering Narcan to Ben.
127 minutes (2 hours, 7 minutes), R-rating for strong language and content relating to drugs, sexuality, and suicide
Summary: Winona Ryder plays Susanna, a young woman with borderline personality disorder, who is sent to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt in the late 1960s. She befriends Lisa (Angelia Jolie), who carries a diagnosis of sociopathy (antisocial personality disorder). Initially, Susanna is in denial about her mental condition and is not open to treatment. However, she reaches a turning point after a tragedy.
123 minutes (2 hours, 3 minutes), PG-13 rating for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language, and brief violence
Summary: Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) starts a chain reaction of goodness for a social studies project with a plan to change the world for the better. In this film, Trevor is a high school student whose mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), struggles with alcoholism and whose father is abusive. He rises above unfortunate circumstances with the kindhearted idea to do a good deed, but instead of requesting payback, asking the receiver to “pay it forward” to at least three people – and on and on. While the movie has a bittersweet end, the message is uplifting and powerful.
Summary: Charlie is an unpopular high school freshman, a “wallflower,” who is befriended by two seniors, Patrick and Sam (Emma Watson). The movie is about their friendship and Charlie’s personal struggles with the recent suicide of his friend and his own mental illness. Throughout the film, Charlie has flashbacks of his aunt, who died in a car accident when he was 7. It’s eventually revealed that Charlie’s aunt molested him; a sexual encounter with Sam triggers Charlie’s repressed memories. Charlie has a mental breakdown.
Other great resources for using clinical films as therapeutic interventions include the book Movies & Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathy, 4th ed. (by Danny Wedding and Ryan M. Niemiec) and the site Teach With Movies.
Are mentally ill people violent? Can mental illness be overcome through willpower? Is addiction a choice? This post addresses some of the myths and misconceptions about mental illness.
By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP
In this post, I’ll address some of the myths and misconceptions about mental disorders. There continues to be stigma attached to mental illness; and the media is partly to blame. Every time (yet another) mass shooting occurs, the media attributes the act of violence to mental illness. This message is repeated by various news sources and then spread through social media.
Acts of senseless violence are for sure a “sickness,” but they’re not criteria for a diagnosable mental disorder. It’s not fair to compare violent criminals to individuals who struggle with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.
Mental illness misconceptions run rampant, even within the healthcare professional field. For example, I know a surgeon who believes mental illness isn’t real and a neurologist who uses words like “crazy” and “retarded.” I came across a substance abuse counselor (on Facebook) who believes addiction is a moral failing. I know a social worker who believes that severely mentally ill individuals are more likely to be violent.
Ignorance is at the root of stigma. The more you know, the less you fear, and the less you’ll stigmatize. Read on to learn about myth versus fact.
9 Myths & Misconceptions About Mental Illness
1. Bad parenting causes mental illness.
Myth! Even today, there is no single identified cause when it comes to mental illness. Instead, there are multiple risk factors that contribute to mental disorders. The biggest risk factor is genetics. Genes frequently determine whether or not a person develops schizophrenia, depression, substance use disorder, etc. Physiological factors (such as abnormalities in the brain) are a second risk factor.
Environmental factors, such as fetal exposure to a toxin or childhood abuse, are a third risk factor. Childhood abuse undoubtedly falls into the “bad parenting” category, but as a standalone, it can’t cause mental illness.
It’s more likely that a combination of risk factors will lead to the development of a mental disorder.
2. Mental illness is not a medical disease.
Myth! Heart disease affects the heart. Colon cancer affects the colon. Autoimmune disorders affect the immune system. Brain disorders (i.e. mental illness, addiction) affect the brain.
You can’t “see” mental health symptoms the way you can see physical health symptoms, but mental illness is without a doubt physiological in nature.
Like other organs, the brain can become diseased, and it manifests as symptoms of mental illness. You can’t “see” mental health symptoms the way you can see physical health symptoms, but mental illness is without a doubt physiological in nature.
3. All sociopaths are dangerous.
The term “sociopath” (or psychopath) is frequently associated with serial killers. The reality is that you probably know a sociopath and he/she isn’t a murderer.
In fact, “sociopathy” and “psychopathy” are no longer recognized diagnoses in the mental health world due to negative connotations. The correct term is “antisocial personality disorder” (ASPD), a mental illness characterized by an ongoing disregard for and violation of the rights of others. An individual with ASPD may also be exceptionally charismatic. (Some of the most charming and engaging clients I’ve ever worked with had ASPD.)
This is 100% myth and a huge pet peeve of mine. It goes hand-in-hand with the belief that mental illness is not a “real” medical condition. A mental disorder typically requires treatment, such as medication and therapy, and ongoing illness management.
All the willpower in the world won’t help someone “overcome” heart disease. And it doesn’t work that way with mental illness either.
5. Addiction is a choice.
Substance use disorder is no more of a choice than diabetes or cancer. Like most diseases, addiction develops when a combination of genetic, physiological, and environmental factors are present. Lifestyle choices also play a role.Unfortunately, the myth that addiction is a moral failing persists.
An individual who struggles with addiction receives more blame than someone with a heart condition, even though lifestyle choices heavily impact both disorders. I’ve even heard it said that addicts who overdose shouldn’t be revived because it was their “choice” to use. If that’s the logic, then should we stop providing life saving care to someone who’s having a heart attack or to a smoker with lung cancer? Of course not. At times, we all make poor decisions. For someone with a predisposition for addiction, the choice to drink may lead to alcohol use disorder. For the person with a predisposition for diabetes, eating an unhealthy diet or living a sedentary lifestyle will result in consequences.
Furthermore, once a person develops a substance use disorder, physiological and structural changes in the brain dissolve the element of choice. The brain misinterprets a craving for drugs or alcohol. (Remember the last time you experienced extreme thirst? That’s what it’s like to be addicted to something.)
Having a substance use disorder is miserable, lonely, and shameful. No one would choose that.
6. People with mental illness are violent.
A person with mental illness is no more likely to be violent than someone in the general population. In fact, acts of violence are not diagnostic criteria for any of the known mental disorders.
If I had to choose someone to hold a loaded gun, I’d pick the person with schizophrenia over someone who’s prone to anger or has poor self-control.
I work with clients who hear “command” voices (auditory hallucinations that tell them to harm or kill); yet I’ve never felt unsafe. In my experience, it’s uncommon for an individual to obey the voices. If I had to choose someone to hold a loaded gun, I’d pick the person with schizophrenia over someone who’s prone to anger or has poor self-control.
While the media would have us believe that mental illness is at the root of every mass shooting, that isn’t the case. (Not to say that mental illness can’t play a role, but it’s not always the trigger.) The biggest risk factor for violence is a history of violence, especially domestic violence, or crime.
Regarding violence, what’s true is that individuals with mental illness are more likely to die by suicide. Persons with schizophrenia have higher rates of suicide than the general population. Depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder are also linked to suicide.
Don’t confuse mental illness with a lack of morals.
A mental disorder is a medical condition; having weak morals is a personality trait, and while it seems mentally sick, it’s not fair to compare a lack of morals to a condition like depression or anxiety.
7. Mental illness is the same thing as mental retardation.
I’m friends with a nurse who didn’t even know the difference (until I pointed it out). A person with a mental illness may seem less intelligent due to various factors, but mental illness is not comparable to mental retardation. Today, we refer to mental retardation as intellectual disability (due to the negative connotations attached to the word “retarded”).
A person with an intellectual disability (ID) struggles to understand, comprehend, and/or form memories. A person with mental illness, on the other hand, may have superior intelligence, but could seem “slow” due to distractions brought on by their illness. (For example, it’s difficult to focus on a conversation when you’re having racing thoughts or hearing voices.)
8. A person with schizophrenia has multiple personalities.
Nope; total myth. In fact, multiple personality disorder (MPD) doesn’t exist (technically). What was formally known as MPD in the DSM-IV TR (the previous version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) is now termed disassociative identity disorder [DID]. A person with DID has at least two distinct personality “states” and suffers from gaps in memory. DID is incredibly rare.
A person with schizophrenia, on the other hand, has one personality state. However, he/she may hear voices that take on distinct identities.
In addition to auditory hallucinations, someone with schizophrenia may experience visual hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts, cognitive deficits, and/or what’s referred to as “negative” symptoms. (A negative symptom is a lack of something that’s typically present in someone without schizophrenia. For example, a person with schizophrenia may be socially withdrawn or he/she may seem very “flat” [without emotion]).
9. Alcohol makes you depressed because it’s a depressant.
Yes, alcohol is a depressant; but as a “depressant,” it depresses your central nervous system, leading to slurred speech, trouble with coordination, etc. The “depressant” effects of alcohol are unrelated to clinical depression.
However, heavy alcohol use is associated with depression and other mental disorders. Someone who is struggling with depression or anxiety may drink as a way to self-medicate. Alternatively, someone with an alcohol use disorder may develop depression, as alcohol upsets the chemical balance in the brain. The lifestyle of someone with alcohol use disorder may also lead to intense guilt, shame, and/or hopelessness, which can in turn lead to depression.
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