More than 300 million people have depression, and each person has a unique story. It’s a mental health condition that manifests in a myriad of ways. It can make people feel lonely, detached, down or unmotivated, like there’s no point to anything. It can also spur them to act irrationally or destructively. We need movies about depression — among other works of art — to help us understand, humanize and sympathize with the many ways people experience depression.
Movies Featuring Depression
If you’re interested in watching a movie featuring depression, it can be difficult to know where to start. There are hundreds of movies about depression, and thousands with strong themes of depression.
Rather than starting a subjective conversation about which movies are “best” in terms of the filmmaking (good writing, interesting characters, solid plot, etc.), we wanted to learn which ones would best enlighten you on the experience of depression. If you live with depression, you might identify with one or more of the characters in these films or they might provide your family and friends some insight into what you’re struggling with.
To narrow the list, we surveyed our network of more than 1,000 therapists and tracked which movies they recommended most frequently. These films focus on the nature of depression itself: what it is, how it develops, and how it affects both people who have it and those around them.
Understanding Depression Beyond Movie Depictions
Depression is more than just feeling sad, it’s a severe mental health condition and a mood disorder. It is one of the most common mental illnesses in the U.S with 7.3 million adults suffering from it. For this very reason, it’s important to understand how it can affect us beyond what we know in movies. Depression brings a multitude of daily negative emotions, changing how individuals think, feel, and function. It negatively impacts one’s ability to sleep, work, and enjoy life. Depression often brings an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair that doesn’t seem to let up. Symptoms of depression include feeling “numb,” self-loathing, difficulty focusing, decreased energy, and thoughts of death. Depression can be ranked from mild and temporary to serious and persistent. Clinical depression is an example of a severe type of depression. If you have concerns for yourself or someone you know, reach out and get help.
Below are the top picks for movies about depression, based on our criteria.
Sometimes the people you expect to be happy are actually horribly depressed. “Anomalisa” tells the story of Michael Stone, an author of motivational books about succeeding in customer support and corporate efficiency.
Despite being an expert on helping people live better, happier lives, Stone is clinically depressed. He loathes himself and feels alienated from the world. The film illustrates this by using a perspective where Stone perceives everyone in the world as sounding nearly identical. It demonstrates the existential difficulties of living with depression.
Because of the stigma of mental illness, people don’t necessarily treat those living with depression with much compassion. They do, however, become sympathetic if someone with depression dies by suicide.
“World’s Greatest Dad,” starring Robin Williams, tells the story of Lance Clayton, a failed author and high school poetry teacher. He is dating a woman who does not want to publicly acknowledge their relationship. He also has an underachieving, pornography-obsessed son who despises him.
When his son dies due to an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, Clayton arranges his body to make it appear as if he hung himself. He then writes a fake — but beautifully poetic — suicide note to avoid embarrassment. The note claims his son killed himself because of depression.
Clayton is actually the one who is depressed. His depression helped him write such a convincing suicide note. Nonetheless, it is his dead son who receives adulation and sympathy from peers who read the note and think it is beautiful. The community who once regarded his son as nothing but a jerk and loser now praises him as a talented poet who suffered from mental illness.
People who suffer from chronic pain, disability, or illness often develop severe depression. In “Cake” the main character, Claire, played by Jennifer Aniston, struggles with depression after losing her son in a car accident that also causes her to experience chronic pain. The grief and feeling of hopelessness regarding her recovery makes her feel like all she can do is complain about life.
Sylvia Plath is famous for writing literature about her depression. “Sylvia” offers snippets of her poetry and blends them with an exploration of her depression and relationship with husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes.
“The Skeleton Twins” tells the story of an estranged brother and sister who reconnect after the brother attempts suicide and the sister considers it. As the plot unfolds, scenes reveal the causes of their depression and how it affects their lives. Both of them struggle to find pleasure and purpose in anything they do. They often make destructive and irrational decisions as a method of coping.
Depression isn’t only a source of pain for the person who has it. It can also be a burden on others. When people care for those with depression, they sometimes build up resentment for the person they are taking care of. At that point, they can either leave the person they are taking care of or try to cope with their frustration.
In “Interiors” a family falls apart as the father separates from the mother because he is tired of caring for her while she struggles with chronic depression and dementia. The mother, Eve, responds by attempting suicide. She then spends years periodically receiving treatment in a sanitorium.
The role of caring for her falls to Joey, one of her daughters. Joey takes out the resulting stress and anger on her mother. Their relationship demonstrates how depression can create a vicious cycle of resentment within families.
7. Garden State
Negative beliefs play a central role in shaping depression. They can become a burden that robs people of joy.
In “Garden State” actor Andrew Largeman believes he was responsible for the accident that caused his mother to become disabled and ultimately die. The burden of this guilt has made him indifferent and numb to many aspects of life.
Note: One of our readers notified us that “Garden State” has rhetoric that makes mental health medication seem like it inevitably numbs emotions and limits the user’s capacity for joy. This is not necessarily true. Medication has side effects that vary between patients. Both mental health medication and psychotherapy are legitimate, research-backed methods of treating mental illness.
The film also depicts the main character suddenly going off his mental health medication rather than working with a mental health professional to gradually wean off. Unlike what the film shows, this practice is dangerous in real life and can result in withdrawal symptoms and more.
“Little Miss Sunshine,” starring Steve Carell, is a dark comedy that demonstrates how depression can be a family affair. With the exception of Olive, the titular character and youngest daughter, all of the members of the Faris family struggle with some form of depression. Their mental health burdens often cause them to lash out at one another, which then exacerbates their depression.
Because of her family’s ordeals and outbursts, Olive forms an idea of what clinical depression is and how it is affecting her family. She realizes that her family sees her as a ray of light that helps them cope with their pain.
“Numb” tells the story of a successful screenwriter, Hudson Milbank, whose psychiatrist diagnoses him with depression and depersonalization disorder, a mental illness that involves periods of feeling disconnected or detached from the body and mind. The film criticizes the tendency to overprescribe medications by demonstrating how the psychiatrists Milbank works with believe drugs are the primary solution to his problems.
10. The Hours
“The Hours” portrays the lives of two women who are reading “Mrs. Dalloway,” Virginia Woolf’s acclaimed novel about a wealthy, depressed woman living in England after the first World War. Each woman has their own struggle with depression and identifies with various elements of Woolf’s novel. The film also portrays Woolf herself.
In “Melancholia,” Justine excellently portrays the “acute anguish and the paralyzing hollowness of depression,” according to The New York Times. The titular planet that is about to collide with Earth and destroy everyone is a metaphor for how destructive depression can be. In part because of her depression that causes her to feel like everything is pointless, Justine is impulsive and self-indulgent. It’s hard for her to think about consequences.
Depression doesn’t need to come from trauma, abuse, grief, toxic environments or a dysfunctional family. It is both an illness and way of perceiving the world. Even when people have relatively easy lives, they can construct a series of irrational negative beliefs that sink them into depression and suicidal thoughts.
In “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” this happens to Craig, a 16-year-old who is performing well in school and generally has a good life. Most of his depression comes from the belief that any failure in his life will ruin him down the line. He feels like he’s not good enough in every possible way. After recognizing his depression, he admits himself to a mental hospital.
Depression can rob people of the ability to feel happiness and pleasure, even if their lives are full of success and everything they want. In “Helen,” the titular character experiences this. She conceals her depression from her family for many years until it becomes too severe to ignore any longer. Everyone around her seems genuinely happy, which makes her feel even worse and exacerbates her sense of loneliness.
14. Prozac Nation
The main character in “Prozac Nation,” Lizzie, becomes increasingly depressed after she begins succeeding in her literary and journalism career at Harvard. The pressure of the success pushes her into a deep melancholy and destructive behavior. To numb the pain of her depression, she abuses drugs.
Real life experiences with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions inspired many of these films. If you live with depression, you might identify with one or more of the stories or characters. Watching these characters struggle and triumph could be the inspiration you need to push forward.
If you’ve found yourself relating to the characters in these movies, you may benefit from taking our free online depression test to learn whether you have depression.
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