As we learn more about the tragic circumstances around Robin Williams’ death, we’re reminded that throughout America—yes, even in Hollywood—millions of Americans still struggle in the shadows with mental health issues.
The irony is that while Williams didn’t get the lifesaving help he needed, he may have given it to others on-screen. In one of his lesser-known films, The Fisher King, he delivered a generous and heartbreaking portrayal of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a must-see performance and a ghostly anomaly in entertainment.
Traditionally, Hollywood has sensationalized or romanticized mental health issues. “We often see mental illness define a character, give him or her superpowers or genius, or make people inherently violent,” says Praveen R. Kambam, a physician who specializes in forensic psychiatry and provides consultation to media and entertainment industries through the organization Broadcast Thought.
Those tropes have a dangerous trickle-down effect and potentially serious health outcomes for the one in four individuals living with mental illness. “There is a major barrier to mental health access because of stigma and prejudice,” says Kambam. “A lot of this comes from insidious images, language, and depictions we see over time in the media.” Aware of the discrimination they face, many people living with mental illness hide their conditions in shame and go untreated.
Hollywood is wising up to the idea that creative projects around mental health can be good for society and also its own bottom line. Following the box office and critical success of films like Silver Linings Playbook, “a lot of people in the industry are saying that mental health topics are pretty hot right now in Hollywood,” says Kambam.
While awaiting more nuanced material, we've rounded up some of the most memorable films and TV shows that address mental illness. They prove that realism isn’t just entertaining. It can change minds and save lives.