(Updated 5/20/20) A list of movies about mental health and substance abuse – includes PDF printable discussion questions
The following is a list of movies about addiction 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.
Hint: The handouts contain spoilers; do not provide until after the movie ends.
Movies About Addiction & Mental Illness
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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.
Munn wrote this book because, as a nonbeliever, he felt the 12 steps of AA didn’t fully translate into a workable program for atheists or agnostics. This inspired him to develop the Practical 12 Steps.
I stumbled upon Staying Sober Without God while searching for secular 12-step literature for a client who identifies as atheist. Jeffrey Munn, the book’s author, is in recovery and also happens to be a licensed mental health practitioner.
Munn wrote the book because as a nonbeliever he felt the 12 steps of AA didn’t fully translate into a workable program for atheists or agnostics. (For example, the traditional version of Step 3 directs the addict to turn his/her will and life over to the care of God as they understand him. If you don’t believe in God, how can you put your life into the care of him? Munn notes that there’s no feasible replacement for a benevolent, all-knowing deity.)
The whole “God thing” frequently turns nonbelievers off from AA/NA. They’re told (by well-meaning believers) to find their own, unique higher power, such as nature or the fellowship itself. (The subtle undertone is that the nonbeliever will eventually come around to accept God as the true higher power.)
In Staying Sober Without God Munn asserts, “There is no one thing that is an adequate replacement for the concept of God.” He adds that you can’t just replace the word “God” with “love” or “wisdom.” It doesn’t make sense. So he developed the Practical 12 Steps and wrote a guide for working them.
The Practical 12 Steps are as follows:
Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive
cycle and currently lacked the tools to stop it
Trusted that a healthy lifestyle was attainable
through social support and consistent self-improvement
Committed to a lifestyle of recovery, focusing
only on what we could control
Made a comprehensive list of our resentments,
fears, and harmful actions
Shared our lists with a trustworthy person
Made a list of our unhealthy character traits
Began cultivating healthy character traits
through consistent positive behavior
Determined that the best way to make amends to
those we had harmed
Made direct amends to such people wherever
possible, except when to do so would cause harm
Practiced daily self-reflection and continued
making amends whenever necessary
We started meditating
Sought to retain our newfound recovery lifestyle
by teaching it to those willing to learn and by surrounding ourselves with
The Practical 12 Steps in no way undermine the traditional
steps or the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, they’re supplemental;
they provide a clearer picture of the steps for the nonbeliever.
Before delving into the steps in Staying Sober Without God, Munn discusses the nature of addiction, recovery, and the role of mental illness (which is mostly left untouched in traditional literature). He addresses the importance of seeking treatment (therapy, medication, etc.) for mental disorders while stressing that a 12-step program (secular or otherwise) is not a substitute for professional help. In following chapters, Munn breaks each step down and provides guidelines for working it.
The last few chapters of the book provide information on
relapse and what the steps don’t
address. Munn notes that sustainable recovery requires more than just working
the steps, attending AA meetings, and taking a sponsor’s advice. For a
balanced, substance-free lifestyle, one must also take care of their physical
health, practice effective communication, and engage in meaningful leisure
activities. Munn briefly discusses these components in the book’s final chapter,
“What the Steps Miss.”
Staying Sober Without God is well-written and easy to read. The author presents information that’s original and in line with current models of addiction treatment, such as behavioral therapy (an evidence-based approach for substance use disorder). Working the Practical 12 Steps parallels behavioral treatments; the steps serve to modify or discontinue unhealthy behaviors (while replacing them with healthy habits). Furthermore, a 12-step network provides support and meaningful human connection (also crucial for recovery).
In my opinion, the traditional 12 Steps reek of the moral model, which viewed addiction as a moral failure or sin. Rooted in religion, this outdated (and false) model asserted that the addict was of weak character and lacked willpower. The moral model has since been replaced with the disease concept, which characterizes addiction as a brain disorder with biological, genetic, and environmental influences.
The Practical 12 Steps are a better fit for what we know about addiction today; Munn focuses on unhealthy behaviors instead of “character defects.” For example, in Step 7, the addict implements healthy habits while addressing unhealthy characteristics. No one has to pray to a supernatural being to ask for shortcomings to be removed.
The Practical 12 Steps exude empowerment; in contrast, the
traditional steps convey helplessness. (The resulting implication? The only way
to recover is to have faith that God will heal you.) The practical version of
the steps instills hope and inspires the addict to change. Furthermore, the
practical steps are more concrete and less vague when compared to the
traditional steps. (This makes them easier to work!)
In sum, Munn’s concept of the steps helped me to better understand the 12-step model of recovery; the traditional steps are difficult to conceptualize for a nonbeliever, but Munn found a way to extract the meaning of each step (without altering overall purpose or spirit). I consider the practical steps a modern adaptation of the traditional version.
I recommend reading Staying Sober Without God if you have a substance use disorder (regardless of your religious beliefs) or if you’re a professional/peer specialist who works with individuals with substance use disorders. Munn’s ideas will give you a fresh perspective on 12-step recovery.
For working the practical steps, download the companion workbook here:
Note: The workbook is meant to be used in conjunction with Munn’s book. I initially created it for the previously mentioned client as a format for working the practical steps. The workbook is for personal/clinical use only.
Where can you find the help you need? While there are plenty of resources out there for mental health and recovery, they’re not always easy to find… or affordable. (Plus, the Internet is full of scams!) This article is a starting point for getting help when you aren’t sure where to turn. This post offers practical guidelines; all of the resources in this article are trustworthy and reliable… and will point you in the right direction.
This post is not comprehensive; rather, it is a starting point for getting the help you need. There are plenty of resources out there for mental health and recovery, but it is not always easy (or affordable) to find help. The resources in this post are trustworthy and reliable… and will point you in the right direction so you can find help.
If you need treatment for mental distress or substance use, but are not sure how to find it…
If you have insurance, check your insurer’s website.
For substance use and mental health disorders, you can access the SAMHSA treatment locator. You can find buprenorphine treatment (medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction) through SAMHSA as well.
Consider using Mental Health America’s interactive tool, Where to Get Help. NeedyMeds.org also has a locator to help you find low-cost mental health and substance abuse clinics.
At campus counseling centers, grad students sometimes offer free or low-cost services.
You could look into community mental health centers or local churches (pastoral counseling).
In some areas, you may be able to find pro bono counseling services. (Google “pro bono counseling” or “free therapy.”) You may also be able to connect with a peer specialist or counselor (for free) instead of seeing a licensed therapist.
As an alternative to individual counseling, you could attend a support group (self-help) or therapy group; check hospitals, churches, and community centers. The DBSA peer-lead support group locator tool will help you find local support groups. Meetup.com may also have support group options.
Additional alternatives: Consider online forums or communities. Watch or read self-help materials. Buy a workbook (such as The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression: A Step-By-Step Program) from amazon.com. Download a therapy app.
Lastly, you could attend a free workshop or class at a local church, the library, a college or university, a community agency, or a hospital.
If you’re under 18 and need help, but your parents will not let you see a counselor (or “do not believe in therapy”)…
Some, but not all, states require parental consent for adolescents to participate in therapy. Start by looking up the laws in your state. You may be able to see a treatment provider without consent from a legal guardian. If your state is one that mandates consent, consider scheduling an appointment with your school counselor. In many schools, school counseling is considered a regular educational service and does not require parental consent.
Alternatively, you could join an online forum or group. (Mental Health America offers an online community with over 1 million users and NAMI offers OK2Talk, an online community for adolescents and young adults.)
Lastly, consider talking with your pastor or a trusted teacher, reading self-help materials, downloading a therapy app, journaling, meditation or relaxation techniques, exercising, or therapy podcasts/videos.
If a loved one or friend says they are going to kill themselves, but refuses help…
Call 911. If you are with that person, stay with them until help arrives.
Explore Learn to Cope, a peer-led support network for families coping with the addiction of a loved one. Alternatively, you could attend Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.
Keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to help someone who doesn’t want it. You can’t control your loved one or force them into treatment. Instead, find a way to accept that there’s no logic to addiction; it’s a complex brain disorder and no amount of pleading, arguing, or “guilting” will change that.
If a friend or family member overdoses on heroin or other opioid…
You can receive free training to administer naloxone, which reverses an opioid overdose. Take an online training course at Get Naloxone Now. You can purchase naloxone OTC in most states at CVS or Walgreens.
In addition to talking to your doctor about medication, the patch, and/or nicotine gum, visit Smoke Free, Be Tobacco Free, or Quit.com for resources, tools, and tips.
Call a smoking cessation hotline (like 1-800-QUIT-NOW) or live chat with a specialist, such as LiveHelp (National Cancer Institute).
Download a free app (like QuitNow! or Smoke Free) or sign up for a free texting program, like SmokefreeTXT, for extra support.
Attend an online workshop or participate in a smoking cessation course; your insurance provider may offer one or you may find classes at a local hospital or community center. You could also contact your EAP for additional resources.
If your therapist is making unwanted sexual remarks/advances…
Contact the licensing board to file a complaint. Each state has a different licensing board. Additionally, contact the therapist’s professional association (i.e. American Counseling Association, American Psychological Association, etc.) Provide your name, address, and telephone number (unless filing anonymously). Identify the practitioner you are reporting by his or her full name and license type. Provide a detailed summary of your concerns. Attach copies (not originals) of documents relating to your concerns, if applicable.
“Every night, I would drink until I passed out, often fully clothed with a beer in hand. I would then wake up, brush my teeth and immediately vomit. I would brush my teeth again and then go to work.” This was the daily routine for JMS, who wore his alcoholism as a badge and didn’t plan to live past 30. In this interview, a recovering alcoholic discusses addiction, sobriety, what everyone should know about alcoholism, and why you might be a jerk if you believe a common myth.
Interviewer: Cassie Jewell, LPC
JMS, a recovering alcoholic, has been sober for nearly six years. He started drinking at the age of 13. He continued to drink throughout his 20s, a “dark and miserable existence,” and didn’t think he’d live to be 30. In 2012, a suicide attempt nearly claimed his life. He woke up in a psych unit, having no memory of what happened, and decided he wasn’t ready to die.
JMS’s “official” recovery date is July 5, 2012. The following is an interview about how he got sober, why AA isn’t for everyone, and why you’re a shitty person if you believe addiction is a choice.
What’s your definition of recovery?
JMS: I don’t see recovery as an end goal. To me, recovery is a path towards my end goal, which is contentment. I have found that I will never be content and happy with my life if I am using some sort of substance. For me, recovery is complete sobriety from all mentally and physically altering substances. I have tried and learned that I cannot pick and choose what to use. It does not work for me. More than just abstinence, recovery is a way of life. It is about being accountable for your actions, admitting when you are wrong, trying your best, and letting things go. Just trying to be a better person than I was yesterday.
Is alcoholism a disease?
It is difficult for people to accept that alcoholics suffer from a disease and are not just a bunch of selfish degenerates that don’t care about their lives.
JMS:I feel the word “disease” can be quite polarizing when discussing addiction. Alcoholism is chronic, progressive, and fatal. Much like diabetes, alcoholism is a relapsing disorder that needs a lifetime of monitoring and treatment. Based on these facts, yes, alcoholism is a disease. I feel this is a difficult idea for people to swallow. Much of addiction has been seen as a moral issue or a failing of willpower. It is difficult for people to accept that alcoholics suffer from a disease and are not just a bunch of selfish degenerates that don’t care about their lives.Obesity holds a similar stigma, though fat shaming has started to catch a bad rap.
When did you realize you had a drinking problem?
I knew for a long time that I was unable to stop drinking, but I didn’t care. I never had any intention of making it to 30 years old
JMS: Hmm, that’s a tough question to answer. My gut response here is to say when I went to jail for my 3rd DUI in 2010, which is when I started to actually try to get sober. But if I am honest with myself, I was well aware that there was a problem years before that. I knew for a long time that I was unable to stop drinking, but I didn’t care. I never had any intention of making it to 30 years old.I lived a really dark and miserable existence for most of my 20s. I could identify story after story about when I should have realized that there was a problem. Destroyed friendships, arrests, hospital visits, blackouts, poor choices, breakfast beers, etc. The truth is, I knew that I drank differently from my friends when I was a kid. When we would wake up hung over after a party, I was the one that would sneak vodka shots. So, I think somewhere in there, I was always aware that it was a problem. I come from a family of alcoholics. My father, his sisters, and his parents are/were all alcoholics. So it was almost a badge of honor to be another alcoholic [last name].
In active addiction, how did alcohol affect your health and appearance?
I learned that it is not normal to have diarrhea everyday for 10+ years.
JMS: I lost 60 lbs. when I stopped drinking. I changed absolutely nothing other than cutting out beer and dropped 60 lbs. I looked and felt a lot less bloated. I also learned that it is not normal to have diarrhea everyday for 10+ years. Honestly, the biggest physical change I experienced, that I am still grateful for today, is acid reflux. While drinking, I kept TUMS in business. I never went anywhere without them. Today, I need to eat some TUMS when I eat pizza or spicy food… you know, like a normal person. I never noticed the impact that drinking had on my sleep until I was no longer drinking. The first few months I really struggled to sleep well since I never had healthy sleep hygiene. Allow me to paint you a picture. Every night, I would drink until I passed out, often fully clothed with a beer in hand. I would then wake up, brush my teeth and immediately vomit. I would brush my teeth again and then go to work. Shower or not, I always reeked of alcohol, so showering was not a top priority. I always thought that I never got hangovers, but once sober I realized that I only thought that because being hung-over was my normal and I was experiencing them every morning. Ugh, the physical impact that had on my life is really something I do not miss.
How (and why) did you get sober? Who and/or what helped? Also, share about some things that were not helpful to you.
JMS:I got sober because I did not want to die. I tried to kill myself the last time that I drank. I do not remember what happened, but I remember waking up in a psych unit in the hospital. There are a bunch of people that were integral to the success of my sobriety at this time. My family is number one. They never gave up on me, despite the hell I put them through. I moved back into my mom’s house when I got out of the hospital. She and my siblings were nothing but supportive of me then and still to this day. I do not know if I would be sober today without their unconditional love and support.There are four other people that I owe my life to at this point. My therapist, my addiction counselor, Bob, my friend Alex, and my friend Jon. I had been working with my therapist for a few years prior to my last drinking adventure. She has always been willing to challenge me and has been a safe space for me to work through some of my biggest fears. She has really helped me understand the nature of my addictions and helped me reframe my thinking and processing of my emotions.
I didn’t buy into [AA].
I have been through multiple addiction treatment programs in my life and none of them stuck. I always approached them with a cynical eye and was just going through the motions to get my family or the courts off my back. A condition of my discharge from the hospital was to enroll in an intensive outpatient program. This is where I met Bob. I figured this was another bullshit program that I was going to have to work through to keep people off my back. Bob was different. He encouraged us to go to 12-step meetings. Of course, I refused. I didn’t buy into those programs. Bob challenged me here. He asked that I attend one meeting in the coming week and write a list of everything that I hated in the meeting. I gladly did this and came back and an entire 8.5×11 sheet of paper full of my gripes. Bob listened to my list and challenged me to go to another one the next week and make a new list with different complaints. I rose to this challenge and did it again, glad to prove my point that AA was stupid and not for me. Bob again listened to my list (without arguing against any complaints) and provided another challenge. Bob asked me to go to another meeting and make a list of the things that I liked from the meeting. I did and, as any alcoholic can tell you, you are bound to hear things in an AA meeting that resonate with you, whether you buy in to the program or not. Bob continued to challenge me to go to meetings, not to go and drink the kool-aid and say some prayers, but to see what I can find that I like. There were other aspects of Bob that I couldn’t figure out why I liked him until one day, I walked into an AA meeting and he was sitting at the front table leading the meeting. Bob is an alcoholic. In that moment I knew that he understood my struggle. Bob was sober and doing meaningful work. Bob was ok. I wanted to be like Bob.
I owe my life to Alex.
I met Alex in the IOP [program] that Bob ran. Alex and I came from different worlds (he was smoking crack on the streets in Baltimore [and] I was drinking in bars in DC), but we had the same reality of sobriety or death. Alex went with me to those AA meetings [around the time that] Bob was challenging me. Alex also brought me to the meeting that would become my home group and introduced me to the people that would soon be my AA family. I owe my life to Alex. I would be remiss not to pay homage to Alex. Alex was murdered in an Oxford house a year in to our sobriety. Alex died sober, which was something he never believed would happen. I miss him every single day.
Finally, my friend Jon; he and I started drinking together as kids. He and I lived together after college and blossomed into the full fledged alcoholics we became. And he and I got sober around the same time on different coasts of the country. When I got out of the hospital, Jon moved back east from California and moved into my mom’s basement. He and I went to AA meetings daily, often more than just one each day. We then spent that first year of sobriety living together trying to figure out how to live.
I did not give a damn about anything while in my active addiction, so telling me you were going to breakup with me or I was going to lose my job did not matter.
What was not helpful? Counselors who tried to tell me about sobriety that clearly did not understand addiction. Ultimatums also did not help. I did not give a damn about anything while in my active addiction, so telling me you were going to breakup with me or I was going to lose my job did not matter. Probation was useless. The biggest impact the state had on my drinking was when I was sent to jail.
What prevents you from going back to drinking?
There is nothing in your life that a drink can’t make worse.
JMS: My life now. I love the person I am today. When I was drinking, I hated myself. I never want to be that person again, and I don’t have to be as long as I don’t drink. I have come to the realization that my worst day sober is infinitely better than my best day drinking. I don’t attend AA meetings anymore, but many of the slogans still bounce around in my head. The most important one I ever heard was, “There is nothing in your life that a drink can’t make worse.” I’m not going to lie and say that now I am sober, life is easy and happy and super fun all the time. It’s not. However, I am better equipped to handle the bullshit in life with a clear head. I would be lying to say that I don’t experience cravings but I know that a drink is not the solution to life’s problems.
What’s something you wish you had known before you became addicted to alcohol? (If you could go back in time and have a word with your younger self, what would you say?)
JMS: I feel like most people will expect me to say something like, “I would slap that first drink out of my hand!” That is not true for me at all.I am the person I am today because of my history with drinking. I am proud of the person I have become and I am not sure I would be who I am without the struggles I went through. I would want to assure myself that it was going to turn out okay and that I would not be that miserable forever. I do wish I had understood and cared about (at the time) the severity of the pain and worry I put my mom and siblings through.
What something you wish everyone knew about alcoholism?
JMS: It is not a choice. Alcoholics don’t drink the way they do because they don’t care about you or their families. They drink the way they do because they cannot control the cravings and urges and are overcome by guilt/shame/fear/pain. I am fairly confident that if every alcoholic could “just stop drinking” they would. Alcoholism is exhausting.
What are your thoughts on AA?
JMS: AA can save lives. I attribute my sobriety to the teachings of, and people I met in, AA. That being said, AA does not work for everyone. I like to [view] AA [as] a religion. AA meetings are akin to going to church, the Big Book is the bible, and sobriety is heaven. Some people need to go to church daily to find their way to heaven. Others only need to read the text to understand the tenets of the religion to find their way there. And some people find their way into heaven following other religious texts or none at all. There is no wrong way to get sober. I do have complaints about AA and I feel there are aspects of it that prevent people from finding their way to sobriety. The focus on actual religion in AA is a major turn-off for people. While AA espouses that it is non-denominational and that we alcoholics are welcome to choose the God of our understanding, we are then thrown into a prayer circle to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the meeting. For a low-bottom newly sober person, it is difficult to believe that there is a God that would allow us to sink so low and experience so much pain. But as I mentioned above in my story about Bob, he challenged me to find what I hated (and you better believe that GOD was written in huge letters on that first sheet of paper) and taught me to focus on what I liked.
If you are struggling, try it.
So, my thoughts? If you are struggling, try it. Ignore the God part for now. Listen to other people tell your story and see that it is possible to get better.
How do you feel when people drink around you?
JMS: In a word, annoyed. Slurred speech, glassy eyes, stumbling, and repetitive stories are not a cute look for anyone. I often feel embarrassed for the people I am around as well. It is always a nice reminder of why I don’t drink. I see absolutely nothing attractive to it and I am glad I don’t do that to myself anymore.
What’s the worst thing about being in recovery? The best?
JMS:The worst part [about] being in recovery is trying to explain to people that they don’t have to behave differently around me once they find out. I can’t count the number of times people have asked me if it is okay to drink around me or warned me that there was going to be alcohol at their house. You don’t ask a person with Diabetes if it is okay if you eat a Twinkie, you don’t have to ask me if it is ok for you to have a beer.
There is just an indescribable freedom that comes along with [sobriety].
The best part is being free. I was a slave to my addictions for years. I do not have that struggle anymore. I do not have to worry about where I will find money to buy alcohol. It is a huge struggle in my life that does not exist anymore. There is just an indescribable freedom that comes along with it.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest misconception out there about addiction?
[If you believe addiction is a choice], that just makes you a shitty person.
JMS: I mentioned it above; that addiction is a choice. That idea is closed-minded and short-sighted. And I think it speaks volumes about the person [who] believes that. I cannot fathom believing that someone would do this voluntarily. It is not fun, it does not feel good, and does not make us proud. In my eyes, the belief that this is a choice tells me that you could choose to behave in this manner if you wanted to, and that just makes you a shitty person.
Please share your thoughts on addiction and recovery in a comment!