Smart, funny and sensitive
Aisling Bea in 'This Way up' (2019)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 03 Oct 2019

Smart, funny and sensitive: Mental health on screen

Factual media Film Representation Television
Dilan Gunawardana
Dilan Gunawardana

Website Coordinator & Content Editor, ACMI

A list of must-see films, docos, TV series, and videogames that destigmatise mental illness.

Among the many films, documentaries, TV series and video games that swing wildly from overly sentimental to outright wacky in their depictions of mental health challenges, here are some that present these in more realistic and sensitive (and entertaining) ways.

This Way Up (2019)

This six-part comedy series looks at the social and mental obstacles that get in the way of happiness. Aisling Bea (who also wrote the show) plays Aine, a young woman trying to pull her life back together after a 'teeny little nervous breakdown', as her fretful sister Shona (Sharon Horgan) worries, not only about her sibling, but also about her own life choices. 

It’s a refreshingly real take on how friends, lovers, exes and family members are pulled into the orbit of someone suffering from ongoing mental health issues. Described as a ‘lighter, sunnier’ Fleabag by Rolling Stone.

Jessica Jones (2015–19)

Ever since her short-lived stint as a superhero ended in tragedy, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) has been rebuilding her personal life and career as a hot-tempered, sardonic private detective in Hell's Kitchen, New York City. 

According to research, women are twice as likely to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) than men, and Marvel’s Jessica Jones has been lauded for its complex portrayal of a woman battling inner and outer demons while using her extraordinary abilities as a champion for those in need.

My Mad Fat Diary (2013–15 )

Based on the memoirs of Rae Earl, My Mad Fat Diary tackles heavy issues – depression, suicide and body image – with honesty and humor. After a four-month stint in a psychiatric hospital for attempted suicide, Rae (Sharon Rooney) reconnects with her best friend Chloe and her group, all who are unaware of Rae's mental health and body image problems. It’s funny and often dark, yet hopeful – not your average cookie-cutter teen drama. 

Louis Theroux: Mothers on the Edge


Louis Theroux: Mothers on the Edge (2019)

A fascinating look at a woefully under-recognised phenomenon of new mothers whose mental health falls apart in the wake of childbirth. Louis Theroux visits specialist psychiatric units that treat mothers experiencing serious mental illness whilst allowing them to live alongside their babies. The normally neutral documentarian’s views are challenged in unexpected ways: “I wondered about my urge not to believe a woman could be indifferent to her own child”. Mothers on the Edge shines a light on our beliefs about mothers and of motherhood. 

Inside Out (2015)

Like all of us, 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is guided by her emotions - Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley's mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. Director Pete Docter began to develop Inside Out after noticing changes in his daughter’s personality. The film was made in consultation with psychologists and neuroscientists and gave children a symbolic language in which to manage their emotions. 

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017)

In this videogame, a broken Celtic warrior named Senua embarks on a haunting vision quest into Viking Hell to fight for the soul of her dead lover. Aside from a strong motion capture performance by Melina Juergens as Senua, and jaw-dropping visuals, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice does an incredible job at portraying the realities of psychosis. It was developed alongside neuroscientists, mental health practitioners and people suffering from mental health issues. 

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude (Zane Pais) decide to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after she announces that she is marrying less-than-impressive Malcolm (Jack Black). 

Although they don’t see eye to eye, the sisters share the similar chaotic traits – extreme mood swings, unstable relationships and being overly suspicious of others. Watching how this family interacts with each other is a great insight into how loved ones often can't help those with mental illnesses the way they wish they could. Throughout the film none of the characters change their ways; they just kind of get on with it.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015–19)

This TV series has taken us on quite a journey since it burst onto the screen – all catchy melodies punctuated with jazz hands – to satirise the trope that give it its title.

Yale-educated, real-estate lawyer Rebecca Bunch packs in her New York life to follow an ex across the country believing that he will bring her happiness. Full of big, brightly-lit musical numbers that deliver cutting truths wrapped up in references from Fred Astaire And Ginger Rogers to the Spice Girls, it's dark, hilarious and poignant. Season three reveals that there's a lot more than unchecked depression going on with "crazy" ol' Rebecca and she finally gets a professional diagnosis for her borderline personality disorder (BPD). 

However, Rebecca's mental health plot-line doesn't neatly wrap up here. Learning how to manage mental health is an ongoing, messy process and by acknowledging this, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend handles the topic with responsibility and authenticity.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

A documentary about Jim Carrey’s performance as legendary comedian Andy Kaufman in the hit film Man on The Moon (1999). Carrey's choice to go completely method in his approach affected his mental health. We see the extent to which the character took over his mind during the film's production. 

Fun facts: Jim Carrey refused to be called by his real name during the entire production and insisted on being dealt with as Andy Kaufman always, on and off the set. Carrey and Kaufman were both born on 17 January. 

Welcome to Me (2015)

When Alice (Kristen Wiig) wins $86 million in the lottery, she decides to go off her medication for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and start her own autobiographical talk show (as you do). As her condition gets worse, she starts to alienate her friends and family with unflattering depictions of them in show segments. Recognising that she needs to keep her loved ones in her life, she starts to take her mental health condition more seriously, and in the process, challenges the perception that people with BPD are selfish.

You might also like:

• Silver Linings Playbook (2012 )

• You’re the Worst (2014–19)

• Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)

• The Skeleton Twins (2014)

• Mary and Max (2009)

• Matchstick Men (2003)

If you or anyone you know needs help:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800

MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978

Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36

Headspace on 1800 650 890

ReachOut at