Important Message from The Joint Chiropractic regarding COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) - Read More

What Roles Do Movies Play in Our Mental Health?

By Martha Michael

Movies and Mental health

When actors hit the red carpet on Oscar night, we see eye-candy couples with glamorous lifestyles sharing statements of mutual admiration for the cameras. The stars come out looking picture perfect in silk and chiffon, but what no one sees is the hardscrabble backstories of battles with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse.

Many top-tier actors face mental health challenges, and their work requires them to access painful memories to draw upon difficult emotions for their craft. In fact, it’s often these vulnerable, less polished aspects of celebrities that help them deliver award-winning performances and cause their fans to feel connected to them.

Let’s pull back the curtain on mental health and the movies. Ticket, please.

How Movies Make Us Feel

After a rough meeting with your boss, you can drop into your lounge chair and stream Top Gun: Maverick to give you courage for another day. For someone else it might be a comedy to help them lighten up. Regardless of how a movie ranks with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it’s how the art form makes us feel that keeps viewers coming back night after night.

An estimated 60-80 million people went to the movies each week during the Great Depression despite economic hardship, according to the University of Houston’s Digital History website. Motion pictures provided an escape from the otherwise miserable landscape.

Will Hays, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association in 1934, reflected on the popularity of movie viewing in the midst of the Depression when he said, “No medium has contributed more greatly than the film to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolution, riot and political turmoil in other countries."

From worldwide despair to personal setbacks, movies are a cultural practice that offer, at least, a distraction from difficult times.

In an article in Psychology Today, psychologist Rami Gabriel, PhD, compares watching movies to a religious ritual. Our sofas and TV monitors are sacred spaces where we congregate for our stories.

We have a natural need to experience mythological symbolism such as heroism on a grand scale, and the ritual of cinema is an appealing form of that process. Outside of the demands of jobs and other responsibilities, our return to a safe and comfortable setting feels restorative. It’s an effective way to reset and become grounded.

Watching movies is a form of self-care, says an article on the California State University, Northridge website. There are emotional benefits when you take in the characters and their stories on the big screen.

According to a post by the CSUN College of Education, Oscar-worthy films give us the opportunity to empathize with others. There are mental health benefits when you sit down to watch a movie, because it can:

  • Increase your emotional intelligence
  • Improve social connectivity
  • Boost your mood
  • Help you deal with anxiety or depression

Movies depicting camaraderie and underdog success can reduce feelings of powerlessness for individuals; sad songs and sad movies give you an outlet for your own negative emotions.

Actors and Mental Health

It’s hard to believe that a person who lives in a multi–million dollar mansion and travels with an entourage, and who stocks their hotel rooms with Perrier and Dom Perignon, could be anything but happy. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Research shows that actors suffer from more mental illness than the rest of the population, and the best actors suffer the worst. An article in the Daily Mail reports that according to studies by Paracelsus Recovery, a Swiss clinic for the rich and famous, nearly seven times more celebrities suffer from mental health problems or addiction than the rest of the population. A study of Oscar winners since 1992 shows that 41 out of the 60 celebrities who took home Best Actor or Best Actress awards have dealt with mental health issues.

While an estimated 10 percent of the general population suffers from mental health issues, 68 percent of Oscar winners do. The most common mental health conditions are depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

“Art is a coping mechanism, and studies show a genetic link between creativity and conditions like depression or bipolar disorder,” says Paracelsus chief executive Jan Gerber. “As Oscar winners are the best of the best when it comes to their creative endeavors, one can see why they are at increased risk.”

Some motion picture nominees who report mental anguish after a project wraps are method actors, those preparing for jobs using a system created in the early 1900s that calls for extreme engagement in an atmosphere that mimics the character’s.

According to the website, there are many extreme examples of method actors preparing for roles and suffering for it.

In 2002, Adrien Brody sold his car, moved to Europe, dropped his weight to 130 pounds, and practiced piano four hours per day for The Pianist. "There were times when I was concerned that I might not be able to get out of it sane,” Brody told reporters, “because I didn't realize how far it had taken me."

In 2010, Natalie Portman also lost weight to accurately portray a professional ballerina for Black Swan, a movie that followed the unraveling of the character’s sanity. Subsisting on a diet of carrots and almonds, Portman somehow endured eight hours of ballet training per day and dislocated a rib in the process. "There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die," she says in an article by The Independent. "It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down."

Like a lot of other method acting examples, both Brody and Portman won Academy Awards for their performances. They also talk about it taking a toll on more than just their physical bodies.

Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for his method acting, from living on a 17th-century set for months leading up to filming The Crucible to living in a wheelchair for My Left Foot. It has earned him three Best Actor Oscars, but has had a long-term effect on his psyche, which is why he retired from acting at the age of 60. He has horror stories from nearly every role, including claims that he saw a ghost of his father during a production of Hamlet. He said he suffered from claustrophobia and hallucinations following The Last of the Mohicans, according to an article on

The Effect of Celebrity Mental Health on the Public

When it comes to mental health, we have a symbiotic relationship with celebrities. There’s an endless debate about whether art mirrors life or the other way around, but part of what makes a project successful in Hollywood is the ability of performers to capture their audience and gain a following.

Studies show there’s a link between media reports of celebrity suicides and the number of suicides in the general population, according to an article in BMJ, the journal of the British Medical Association. Combining data from various studies, the journal reports an 8-18 percent rise in public suicides in the two months following a reported celebrity suicide. There’s an association in the method, as well. The risk of the same form of suicide committed by members of the public increases 18-44 percent.

When actor Robin Williams killed himself in 2014, deaths by suicide in the United States over the next five months rose by nearly 10 percent. Some experts conclude it results from identification with the celebrity or a normalization of the act.

Editor’s Note: If you feel as if you want to harm yourself or are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

Making the public aware of the emotional struggles of famous people can also have a positive impact. When elebrities share mental health issues they reduce social stigmas, according to the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.

From singer Adele and La La Land actress Emma Stone to Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and TV host Carson Daly, many stars have brought their own chronic conditions to a state of collective awareness. It increases understanding and builds compassion for those suffering from various mental health problems. It reduces stereotypes and normalizes symptoms. There’s a greater openness about people’s struggles, and celebrities can model therapeutic behaviors to fans who identify with them.

It also benefits the celebrity because they seem more relatable. One study found that celebrity disclosure about a panic disorder inspired a greater public search for information about the condition and how to find care and treatment.

Portrayal of Mental Health in Movies

From the first talkie in 1931 to the latest film release, you can probably find a mental health theme in nearly every production because art forms specialize in exploring the world of human emotion. Oscar-winning films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest deliberately bring painful and challenging emotions to the forefront. Here are some other notable movies that explored mental health.

The King of Staten Island - Not an Oscar-nominated film, the semi-autobiographical movie tells the story of actor Pete Davidson, who lost his firefighter father during 9/11. The character deals with ADD and Crohn’s disease while also battling drug use.

A Beautiful Mind - Winning four Academy Awards in 2001, including Best Picture, it is based on the true story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, who unravels due to paranoid schizophrenia.

Silver Linings Playbook - The female lead suffers from borderline personality disorder that leads to mood instability, substance abuse, and other problems.

Good Will Hunting- A genius janitor at MIT confronts his inner demons, including fear of failure and self-sabotage. It earned two Academy Awards, including one for the late Robin Williams for Best Supporting Actor.

Oscar-Worthy Movies of 2022

Not every quality production will win an award, but the public benefits from continuing the conversation through the range of mental health issues represented in Oscar-worthy releases from 2022. One could argue that’s always the case, but some years are standouts. Themes from the year include:

All Quiet on the Western Front - Depressing barely covers the intensity of emotion in this film. Though there’s no hero in a white hat, a wide-eyed soldier has good intentions, then faces the stunning reality of the terrors of war.

Causeway - A female U.S. veteran with a traumatic brain injury from an IED explosion in Afghanistan struggles to reenter society in New Orleans. It overtly discusses a possible link between the soldier’s trauma and her depression while exploring the physical and mental trauma of another main character who survived a car crash.

Pinnocchio - An age-old story, it reintroduces many passages in the quest to become a “real boy,” from being tricked and trapped to determining right from wrong. The audience rides the roller coaster of emotions with Pinnocchio from being lured into fame to finding authenticity and returning home.

Lightyear - Buzz Lightyear is a character from Toy Story, a series known to turn on the emotional waterworks. In this film, he turns the klieg lights on other feelings such as connectedness. Critics consider it almost as emotionally weighty as it explores vulnerability and grief.

The Northman - It’s Hamlet among Vikings, including toxic family dynamics. Though it’s largely a complicated action movie using Norse mythology, as a viewer you explore power, revenge, loyalty, and other complex human emotions.

The Wonder - In this psychological drama, an Irish girl doesn’t eat because she claims she’s being fed by God. Combining themes such as mourning and loss from the Irish famine, sexual trauma, and deception, people with mental health struggles of many kinds have content to identify with here.

Elvis - A 12-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival leaving Priscilla Presley teary-eyed was testament to the depiction of the rare air breathed by an icon who reached previously unknown levels of fame. The emotional makeup of this film covers everything, from Elvis Presley’s battle with paranoia to the societal meltdown by parents of the era at the hip-swiveling newcomer in the 1950s to the love-hate relationship with a manager who throttled the singer’s best interests.

For most ordinary people, the closest they’ll get to their favorite celebrity is stepping on their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (or visiting the meditation garden at Graceland). But for the most famous celebrities in the world who reach the summit of their dreams, it’s treacherous footing, often with a string of battles with mental illness or addiction.

Yet those kinds of stories -- and others -- that we consume on the silver screen can be our own form of therapy, a warm and fuzzy blanket that can cross the emotional spectrum with a good laugh or a good cry.

Movies are an important part of our culture. Embrace them, love them, give them two thumbs up or two thumbs down. But always remember that a mood change may be as simple as picking another title.

Download your offer today and save!

$29 New Patient Special, Consultation | Exam | Adjustment

Offer valued at $45. Valid for new patients only. See clinic for chiropractor(s)' name and license info. Clinics managed and/or owned by franchisee or Prof. Corps. Restrictions may apply to Medicare eligible patients. Individual results may vary.