1. Girl Interrupted
This film tells the story of how 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) is hospitalized following a suicide attempt in April 1967.
While there, she meets other girls with an assortment of mental illnesses, including: Polly (Elisabeth Moss), who has disfigured herself with self-inflicted burns; Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a sociopath who is continually flouting authority and escaping the hospital; Georgina (Clea DuVall), a pathological liar who is romantically involved with a violent patient from another ward; and Daisy (Britney Murphy), a molestation victim and bulimic who commits suicide on her birthday.
Following Daisy's suicide, Susanna becomes more cooperative in her treatment, begins to make progress and is soon released from the hospital after having been there for 18 months.
In this account of the life and suicide of troubled poet Sylvia Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), we follow her descent into depression following her separation from her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig).
Much like the character in her novel The Bell Jar, Plath goes through the motions of living, trying in vain to find some way out of her deep depression. She finds herself feeling emotionally closed-off and isolated. This feeling is well-illustrated when she attempts to carry on an affair with a friend but finds herself unable to emotionally engage with him. In fact, the only thing that captures her attention is when he mentions his own failed suicide attempt.
Sadly, there is no happy ending to this story. Plath took her own life when she was only 30. However, the movie does an excellent job of portraying the toll that this illness can take on even the most promising and talented of people.
Helen (Ashley Judd) is a music professor and pianist who finds herself slowly slipping into mental problems that she is unable to fight. She finds herself becoming alienated from her husband, her child and her students because she is not able to control her feelings and behaviors.
As her condition worsens, she attempts suicide several times and finds herself barely able to speak to anyone. Her relationship with one particular student, however, is her saving grace. Mathilda is a gifted student who is fighting her own depression; the relationship between the two becomes the central focus of the movie, with Mathilda offering the kind of support that only someone who has also been through depression can offer.
The film continues to portray Helen's eventual recovery, showing devastating impact mental illness has not only on Helen, but also on the people who love her.
4. Prozac Nation
Based on Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir of the same name, this film stars Christina Ricci in the role of Elizabeth, a young woman beginning college at Harvard.
Elizabeth struggles in both her school and personal life. She is a promising writer but often finds herself undoing her hard work through her anger and out-of-control behavior. She has difficulty making connections with people and often lashes out at boyfriends and friends, driving them away. Even though she knows what she is doing is counterproductive, she finds it hard to stop.
At times she falls into deep depression, where she is in a trance-like state and unable to complete her work and school commitments.
Eventually, Elizabeth gets into therapy and begins treatment with Prozac. She gains some relief from her illness, although she continues to struggle even as she makes some breakthroughs.
5. The Hours
This story is based on Michael Cunningham's novel about depression and how it affects three women: Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep).
Although their three stories take place in different decades, they occur on the same day of the same month and are linked together by a reference to Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. As the women live through this one particular day in their lives we see how depression and suicide affect their characters.
In the first story, Clarissa is a New Yorker who is preparing an award party for a long-time friend who has AIDS. Her friend commits suicide that night, feeling that the award is meaningless since he didn't receive it before he was so close to death from his illness.
In the second story, a pregnant Laura, desperately unhappy with her life, secretly checks into a hotel with the intention of taking an overdose of pills. She has a change of heart, however, when she wakes up from her unsuccessful attempt.
And finally, there is Woolf's own story, in which she is beginning to write her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while struggling to cope with depression, headaches and her feelings about being a lesbian.
Woolf's suicide by drowning, which occurred on a different day, bookends the movie.
6. Revolutionary Road
Based on Richard Yates' period novel, Revolutionary Road, this film tells the story of a young couple in the 1950's who seemingly have ideal lives. Under the surface, however, April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) Wheeler are less than happy. Frank's well-paying job bores him, and April mourns the loss of her dream career in acting.
Eventually the couple hit upon the idea of going to Paris, which April believes will be the solution to all their problems. Instead, as the move comes closer to reality, they become more embroiled in their current situation. Frank's carefree attitude, brought about by the thought of moving to Paris, gains him even more success at work and a promotion. April becomes pregnant again.
April and Frank experience a great deal of conflict over April's desire to abort the baby. Frank gives up the dream of moving to Paris and taking the promotion, and April eventually decides to perform her own abortion without telling Frank. Tragically, she dies from the procedure.
One of the things this film illustrates well is how much appearances can be deceiving. Even though a person may seem to have it all, we may never actually know how bad their inner turmoil is until it's too late.
7. The Virgin Suicides
Based on Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, this film depicts the suicides of five sisters (Leslie Hayman, A.J. Cook, Chelse Swain, Kirsten Dunst and Hanna R. Hall) who come from a very strict and overprotective family (James Woods, Kathleen Turner), and their relationship with a group of four neighborhood boys who attempt to befriend them from a distance.
The film begins when the youngest sister, Cecilia, takes her own life by jumping from a window and becoming impaled on an iron fence. Their parents respond by making the other girls even more overprotected and isolated.
Struggling to cope with their sister's death, the girls begin to act out and break a curfew. In response, their mother decides to remove them from school and keep them at home indefinitely. During this period, the girls strike up a friendship with the boys through light signals and songs shared over the phone.
The film reaches its tragic climax one night when the girls invite the boys over, but the boys discover that the sisters have all just carried out a suicide pact.
8. Ordinary People
Based on the Judith Guest novel, Ordinary People deals with an upper-middle class family falling apart after the accidental death of a son.
Following the death of Buck (Scott Doebler), Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) Jarrett struggle to cope. Calvin has difficulty connecting with his remaining son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), while his wife remains in denial and behaves coldly toward Conrad, giving the appearance that she loved her other son more.
Conrad struggles as well. Feeling tremendous guilt about his brother's death, he ends up attempting suicide and being hospitalized for four months.
Eventually, through psychotherapy, Conrad learns to stop blaming himself and comes to accept that his mother is less than perfect. However, Beth leaves her family rather than face up to her emotions.
One of the strongest points of this film is its accurate portrayal of psychotherapy. In a 1999 article in Academic Psychiatry, the movie received high praise as one of the few films about psychotherapy that make good teaching tools for students.
9. A Single Man
This film, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, deals with a grieving English professor named George Falconer (Colin Firth), who, eight months after the death of his partner, is still struggling to cope with his grief.
Throughout the film, he spends the day getting his affairs together and planning his suicide. As he prepares, he remembers his lover and finds himself emotionally affected by the people he meets, including his best friend, a student and a male prostitute.
Touched by the efforts of his student to save his life, George makes the decision that he can go on living after all. Rather ironically, however, he then passes away from a heart attack.
10. The Fisher King
In this film, a former radio shock-jock (Jeff Bridges), who is feeling suicidal over a past mistake, attempts to find redemption by coming to the aid of a mentally ill homeless man who was hurt by his actions (Robin Williams).
Jack Lucas, the radio DJ, initially becomes depressed after his careless on-air comments trigger a caller to commit mass murder. Three years later, he finds his chance to make amends when some men, who think he is a bum, attempt to douse him in gasoline and set him on fire. After Parry, the homeless man, rescues him, he discovers that Parry's current mental illness is the result of witnessing his wife's murder at the hands of Jack's caller three years earlier. Jack decides that he will help Parry in his delusional quest for the Holy Grail in order to make up for the pain he has caused him. In the process, both men are reunited with the women they love.
Miller, Frederick C. "Using the Movie Ordinary People to Teach Psychodynamic Psychotherapy With Adolescents". Academic Psychiatry 23 (1999) : 174-179.