Help me be Counselor to the Stars! (or to their characters)
April 4, 2011 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Looking for examples of anxiety/depression/other psych issues in film and t.v. characters. What can you recommend?

I'm looking for psychology case studies in a movie or t.v. format. The more information and depth the movie/show provides on the character and his or her issue, the better. Great kinds of issues to address would be depression, anxiety, substance abuse, grief, PTSD, over-eating, anger issues, suicidal ideation, etc. I'm less interested in films that depict problems like schizophrenia or psychotic behavior.

I'm essentially trying to use analysis of a fictional character to replicate the experience of having a real-life client to use as a case study. Documentaries that focus on one specific person would also be great.

Thanks as always!
posted by aka burlap to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
House, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, the (I think) 3rd season Trip episodes of Enterprise (his sister dies) and the entirety of both Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.
posted by SMPA at 8:39 AM on April 4, 2011

Off the top of my head, I would mention House (depression, substance abuse), Nurse Jackie (substance abuse) and The Sopranos (anxiety, depression).
posted by Gilbert at 8:40 AM on April 4, 2011

The West Wing devotes an episode to Josh Lyman's PTSD in the second season episode Noel.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 8:40 AM on April 4, 2011

Oh, and I'd love to see a case study on Malcolm Reynolds on Firefly.
posted by SMPA at 8:40 AM on April 4, 2011

Winifred "Fred" Burkle in the series Angel has some pretty serious anxiety/agoraphobia in the first season or two the character was introduced. Her overcoming it is handled pretty organically.
posted by elendil71 at 8:43 AM on April 4, 2011

How about Monk?
Adrian Monk was a brilliant detective for the San Francisco Police Department until his wife, Trudy, was killed by a car bomb in a parking garage, which Monk then believed was intended for him. He later discovers Trudy's death was part of a larger conspiracy that she had uncovered during her time as a journalist. Trudy's death led Monk to suffer a nervous breakdown. He was discharged from the force and became a recluse, refusing to leave his house for over three years.

He is finally able to leave the house with the help of his nurse, Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram). The breakthrough allows him to work as a private detective and a consultant for the homicide unit despite limitations rooted in his obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), which had grown significantly worse after the tragedy.
posted by bcwinters at 8:45 AM on April 4, 2011

Also, maybe the first season of Veronica Mars? Great show, and Veronica is dealing with grief, anger and probably a bit of PTSD resulting from her own date rape and the murder of her best friend. She doesn't seek therapy (and you in fact see her manipulating a guidance counselor trying to provide it), but the repercussions and psychological effects ripple throughout the show, both with Veronica and other characters, some of whom are also dealing with issues like abuse.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 8:48 AM on April 4, 2011

All of Intervention (substance abuse)
Jersey Shore (domestic violence/dating abuse). I've never watched the show, but I was at a talk over the weekend where an MTV rep talked about how the show inadvertently glamorized explosive relationships. It was this guy's department that managed mitigation efforts like PSAs and sponsoring dating abuse hotlines
The United States of Tara (multiple personality disorder/DID)

I'll come back if I think of more!
posted by paddingtonb at 8:49 AM on April 4, 2011

Seconding Veronica Mars.

Also Mad Men for lots of alcoholism and abuse.
posted by NoraReed at 8:52 AM on April 4, 2011

The movie "Revanche" --PTSD/depression with 2 main characters.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 9:05 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: PsychFlix is a site you need to check out.

The Weather Man is a great, underrated movie about a man with anxiety, depression, father issues, the whole bit.

Six Feet Under is one of richest shows you'll ever see. It's a wunderkammer of neuroses, realistically and sympathetically portrayed.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:11 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sweethearts, if you'd like something more indie-film instead of slick-Hollywood.
posted by K.P. at 9:14 AM on April 4, 2011

Mercy (it only lasted one season) dealt pretty extensively with PTSD and substance abuse, as well as a number of other issues you listed. It's set in a hospital, as well, so it goes into the clinical side of the illnesses a bit.
posted by hasna at 9:15 AM on April 4, 2011

I think an analysis of James Spader's character in sex, lies and videotape would be interesting, precisely because he's clearly got some pathologies, but it wouldn't be trivially easy to put a label on them, and the film is not really "about" a labelled illness.

Also, Jack Nicholson's character in As Good As It Gets, who has OCD.
posted by drlith at 9:35 AM on April 4, 2011

Abbie Hoffman was a very public figure who was diagnosed as bi-polar and suspected of having other issues going on as well. The biopic Steal this Movie does not make his mental health the primary focus of the film but his mania and depression come through constantly. The entire film should still be on youtube.
posted by K.P. at 9:40 AM on April 4, 2011

In fact, you could get quite a few alternatives just by looking at Jack Nicholson's entire oevre. The man plays a good headcase.
posted by drlith at 9:41 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

hbo's "in treatment" should be full of teachable moments
posted by ecks at 9:47 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Winona Ryder's character in Girl, Interupted is diagnosed with Borderline Personality, but there are many other characters worth looking at.

I'd second Mercy as well.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 9:51 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: Oh my goodness. This is one of my favorite hobbies: diagnosing fictional movie characters.

White Oleander: borderline personality disorder, narcissistic family system and anxiety disorders.

Girl Interrupted: borderline personality disorder and depression (screw what the doctor in the movie says, Angie is totally borderline).

Ordinary People: anxiety and depression (the son), narcissistic pd (the mother). Maybe PTSD? I've also always really liked the therapist as played by Judd Hirsch as an example of the uses of active listening and empathy.

Virgin Suicides: suicide, depression, PTSD, results of repressive sexuality on a family of adolescent girls

Grey Gardens: agoraphobia, delusional disorders

Black Swan: anxiety disorder, eating disorder, (another example of a narcissistic mother - I seem to be developing a theme here. hmmm)

Basketball Diaries, 28 days, Requiem for a Dream and Leaving Las Vegas: Substance abuse.

Matchstick Men and As Good As It Gets: OCD, Agoraphobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Little Voice: Social Anxiety Disorder

The Devil and Daniel Johnston: Bi Polar Disorder with psychosis and maybe Aspergers or Autism. Also, the side effects of long term use of antipsychotic drugs.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape: looks like a movie about developmental disability and/or autism but also depicts eating disorder well and some interesting family dynamics and codependence.

Black Snake Moan: Panic disorder, anxiety disorder, borderline pd (I don't know if Christina Ricci has OCD, or maybe Bi polar disorder with mania, Nymphomania seems like a bs diagnosis but I'm pretty sure she's pushing borderline pd)

I have more. Want to post this now and then come back later. Seriously, this is one of my favorite things. Memail me if you want an example of a disorder I haven't listed.
posted by dchrssyr at 9:53 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I typed this and then lost it: Black Snake Moan - results of childhood sexual abuse (probably the origin of her bpd and compulsive sexuality).

I am totally an armchair psychologist and movie characters give me a safe way to practice this without compulsively diagnosing real people.
posted by dchrssyr at 10:04 AM on April 4, 2011

Doc Martin - doctor with a blood phobia.
Interesting in that the phobia was brought on by his work as a surgeon, and he seems to more-or-less successfully treat it through therapy in the third season (how successfully in the long term we'll find out in season four...).
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:09 AM on April 4, 2011

oops, that should be treated in the fourth season, season 5 upcoming.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:11 AM on April 4, 2011

John Goodman's character in the first season of Treme. Oh, and Amelie. There's lot of good suggestions in this thread. I like how someone's homework is someone else's unusual hobby. Yay, Metafilter!
posted by black rainbows at 10:14 AM on April 4, 2011

In Treatment
The Sopranos

posted by mkultra at 10:21 AM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, wonderful answers, everyone! Keep 'em coming! This is a treasure trove.
posted by aka burlap at 10:24 AM on April 4, 2011

How about Walk The Line? It's a good example of depression/substance abuse that has roots both in childhood trauma and a rejecting father.
posted by gentian at 10:35 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: The 1942 film "Now, Voyager" is often cited as an example of Borderline Personality Disorder (the mother), armchair diagnosis with which this daughter-of-a-BPD-mom agrees. I also found it interesting for unintended problems: the therapist's irresponsible confidence; the abused daughter's recovery that seemed more like a manic episode than a true "recovery"; the dysfunctional relationship that the daughter has with the man she meets and his own family. More disappointing was the very clear fact that had the abused daughter not come from an extremely well-to-do family, the story would have turned out quite differently. But all in all, interesting psychological insight through 1940s glasses.
posted by fraula at 10:44 AM on April 4, 2011

Mommy Dearest--borderline personality disorder (although some say alcoholism) and narcisstic personality
posted by stormpooper at 10:48 AM on April 4, 2011

The show "In Treatment" is something to watch when thinking about mental issues. It's an interesting series about people in therapy, and features Gabriel Byrne.

Pi is good, I think that is about OCD.
posted by amodelcitizen at 10:58 AM on April 4, 2011

Recent movie, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" has multiple characters with mental disorders.
posted by maxg94 at 11:02 AM on April 4, 2011

Dexter often talks about his inability to empathize with others (as a serial killer).
posted by jander03 at 11:04 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: Thirteen - Thirteen year old girl wrestling with depression, self-mutilation (cutting), substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, huffing), tons of generally self-destructive behavior.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:07 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dexter is an especially good bit of pop to analyze, because Dexter is an unreliable narrator of his own mental states. He talks about having no emotions and no true connections with others, but we see this contradicted all the time, increasingly so as the series progresses. I could go into spoilery detail, but I won't. It's a good series, especially the 1st and 4th seasons, and it's worth charting how Dexter behaves versus his own rationalizations for how he acts.

Rita is a great character as well. One of the few semi-realistic depictions of a DV survivor I've seen on in TV or film. Her abusive ex was also pretty detailed in that show - he was humanized, which is unusual in these kinds of stories.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:15 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Aviator and A Beautiful Mind are biopics but really well detailed.
posted by Anitanola at 11:36 AM on April 4, 2011

Hear me out on this...Charlie Sheen plays a character on TV which seems to be at least loosely (ahem) drawn on his actual life. Many professionals (and sufferers of the illness) recognize in his behavior nearly every symptom of a protracted (hypo) manic episode in someone who is "textbook" Bipolar.

Most sufferers are not public figures in the media spotlight. But even if they are, they are rarely as "unedited" as Sheen allows himself to be. In his case, the public gets a rare glimpse of an example of how the illness manifests in real time - in print, photos, and most tellingly, in video.

More directly appropriate to your question is the fictional Sheen plays on Two and a Half Men. It's interesting to compare the real Sheen to the "fictional" Sheen and see how society reacts to these characters when one is perceived as real with real children, and one is clearly fictional with a fictional child he is helping to raise. On TV he is funny. In real life, he has not had the brilliance or success that other public artists suffering from probable mental illness/addiction have had (Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Cobain, Charles Bukowski, and on and on). The work of these artists elevated them to hero/cult status, whereas Sheen's work has only given him tragic clown status. On TV, we laugh "with" these issues when they are flaunted by a wealthy, unedited libertine. In real life, we tend to laugh "at", or even mock the same person.

Anyway, there aren't too many fictional characters out there, like Sheen's character, that can be simultaneously compared to the real person, displaying in real-time, real symptoms, of a real illness.
posted by nickjadlowe at 12:06 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, Shine!

Shine is a 1996 Australian film based on the life of pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in institutions.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:29 PM on April 4, 2011

Breaking Bad--the cop character, Walter White's brother-in-law has a severe (and well-portrayed) Acute Trauma Response that possibly morphs into PTSD. It is very true to my experience with trauma.

His wife has kleptomania.

Jesse is an addict.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:03 PM on April 4, 2011

Just about any "lone wolf" or "maverick" character has seemed like that to me. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon? Nearly any Clint Eastwood character?

I take it you aren't looking for films explicitly about these things? Crazy Heart? Barfly? I remember liking Michael Keaton's Clean and Sober. Another really good film about alcoholism and domestic abuse was "Once Were Warriors," though it was too realistic to be very enjoyable, imo.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:27 PM on April 4, 2011

And speaking of Michael Keaton, how about Batman?
posted by small_ruminant at 1:30 PM on April 4, 2011

For an excellent case-study of post-war PTSD, I'd take a look at The Secret Life of Words. Sarah Polley plays a nurse who has experienced extreme trauma.

Heaven on Earth offers a grim study of an extended family and a new bride who is victimized and abused.
posted by prairiecatherine at 2:04 PM on April 4, 2011

Lars and the Real Girl - the main character definitely has some kind of disorder, though I don't know what one specifically. And is treated for it, though not in any conventional way.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:28 PM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: If you are doing this in a serious way as an actual psychology student, just keep in mind that in most movies/tv, the character's presentation is very stereotypical and more in line with what people popularly think a disorder looks like (cough cough borderline), not necessarily the true to life way that things present in real people. Definitely a good exercise in finding out why comprehensive assessment and differential diagnosis are so important. :)
posted by so_gracefully at 11:18 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Has no one mentioned The X-Files? Because, yeah.

Also, most of the cast at some point for Star Trek DS9 and Babylon 5. Especially grief (who doesn't lose a spouse or lover?)

And the 9th+ Doctors on Doctor Who are dealing with that whole "last of my kind" issue. Plus everyone on Torchwood all the time.

This thread is making me want to start watching cartoons. Other than, you know, all the angsty ones which now come to mind.
posted by SMPA at 8:27 PM on April 5, 2011

Bouncing off of so_gracefully's comment: I would focus less on movies that explicitly set out to display a certain disorder than on movies that simply have rich, detailed, but basically undiagnosed characters. We can go back and forth as to how good or bad A Beautiful Mind is at depicting schizophrenia, but it's probably more interesting to see how, say, you would deal with Meryl Streep's character in Plenty if she came to you for help.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:38 PM on April 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers, everyone!
posted by aka burlap at 2:43 PM on April 6, 2011

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