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Psychology and the Movies: A Review


By Shannon Gostelow

Provisional Psychologist


What movie is this from?

“After all… tomorrow is a another day”

and this…? 

“Mamma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. 

How about this one?

“Oh yes, the past can hurt. But you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

Did you get them? (Answers are at the end of this blog…;))


Of course we all know that movies are a source of light entertainment or escapism…we also know that they are capable of making us think differently, feel deeply or thoughtfully question. Sometimes movies reflect life right back at us….and sometimes they can depict the truth of it quite well. Truthful movies about romantic relationships and the struggle between good and evil are relatively commonplace. However, films centering around an accurate portrayal of mental illness are fairly rare…and movies that actually have a go at sensitively exploring the lives of those with a psychological illness are even rarer…but they are not non-existant.

There have been some respectful Hollywood attempts. Yes, these types of elusive films actually do exist in tinseltown;) Furthermore, there are even some films which portray realistic storylines, believable characters AND manage to promote overcoming adversity through resilience. These films all concurrently balance the reality and difficulty of mental illness with the possibility for positive change, opportunity and momentum.

At this point a mini film review seems pertinent…

So…the first cab off the rank is  ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’– a recent, academy award winning film aptly depicting a male character with a diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder.


Whilst this film displayed a slightly questionable ethical relationship between client and therapist, it also gave credible screen time to the symptoms of Bipolar I Disorder (BPDI), the impact of these symptoms on family and friends and the implications of the use and non-use of medication. Overall, the movie communicated that whilst BPDI is a difficult psychological illness to grapple with, it can be manageable with appropriate medication and psychological treatment. This film also advocated that people who have BPDI can have productive lives, contributing creatively and valuably to society. This is a refreshingly accurate ‘message of hope’ which is backed by psychological research. If you would like further information about Bipolar Disorders or research please click on the link below.


The next two films are academy award winning, artfully acted and superbly scripted films based on real life, namely ‘A Beautiful Mind’ which is about mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jnr and his diagnoses of Schizophrenia, and the Australian film ‘Shine’ which traces the life of pianist David Helfgott who has an undefined disorder which is most closely associated with Schizoaffective Disorder.


Both movies follow the lifetime struggle of two men with genius and a significant mental illness. Both explore the various ways the characters attempt to cope with such a dichotomy and both end with the truthful situation of each man i.e. in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ the protagonist John Forbes Nash, Jnr is able to continue his mathematical work, even winning the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics, whilst simultaneously learning how to negotiate living with the hallucinations and delusions associated with his type of Schizophrenia-even in film form it is extremely humbling to witness; in ‘Shine’ the pianist prodigy David Helfgott, after a significant time in hospital institutions, gets happily married, resumes playing piano and performing in concerts…leading to international renown for his uniqueness and ability. In both movies the illness remains a challenge. However, reflecting the real life choices made by both men, this adversity slows but does not stop them from achieving fulfilling lives.  For more on the topic of Schizophrenia click here


or here


or call the Helpline on 1800 18 7263.

The next movie deserving of a mention is one most people would probably know – ‘Rainman’, a 1988 film with Dustin Hoffman.


This film tracks a character, ‘Ray’, with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and explores his difficulty in joining with the world due to his habitual rigidity and social impairments. As a subtle and keenly gifted actor Hoffman gives a truthful humanity to Ray that is often missing from films and characters depicting ASD. The film does not back away from pursuing the effect of ASD symptoms on the main character and his family- the eventual effect being continued inpatient care- BUT the film emphasises the nuanced resilience of Ray and the support and love of a ‘brother’ character which assists in this resilience. Again, this movie manages to offer a realistic but hopeful picture of living with Autism Spectrum Disorder. If you would like further information on ASD click here http://www.amaze.org.au

The last movie worth mentioning is the romantic comedy ‘As Good As It Gets’ with Jack Nicholson.


This film explores a character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and also touches on the use/non-use of medication and psychological therapy as treatment tools. The most significant aspect of this film is that the character has to constantly adapt to get what he needs/wants-nothing seems to happen quickly or easily for him. This is fiction truthfully reflecting life. In fact, whilst the end is slightly Hollywood-ised, there is still a question mark about exactly where this character will go in life. One thing is clear though- the character is empowered to tackle his illness through a pattern of ‘trying again’ or persisting when faced with a challenge and this display of resilience increases his chances of defeating OCD. This film is an accurate portrayal of the ongoing difficulty of OCD alongside the possibility for change. OCD is a mental illness that, with the aid of treatment, does not have to be lifelong which, in itself, brings hope. More useful information on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be found by clicking on the link below.


The central components underpinning all these films is that they depict characters facing adversity in the form of a mental illness, yet choosing hope in the face of the challenge. So… in metaphorical movie talk it looks like this:

The psychological symptoms shout (Gandalf style) “You shall not pass!!!”…but through the adversity the characters all reach for the outstretched hand of hope which is accompanied by a voice which says “Come with me if you want to live” (in a strangely Austrian accent…;)

These films reflect what is psychologically going on around the world, every day, all the time. That is, people with a psychological illness are picking themselves up and taking steps forward where they can even though it is hard…and it IS hard. But, as shown in films and life, positive change is not impossible. These movies offer truthful windows into the lives of others…and by increasing understanding, the door toward empathy opens ever wider.

We will never see all the blockbuster films that could be made about the every day people who take the forward steps where they can…but we can certainly watch the films that are made which so respectfully and accurately reflect them.

Right…so where’s the popcorn…?

(Answers: 1. Gone with the Wind, 2. Forrest Gump, 3. The Lion King, 4. sneaky reference to The Lord of the Rings and the Terminator films)













Shannon Gostelow
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