How Accurately Is Schizophrenia Portrayed In Movies?

by Claire Gillespie Health Writer

Schizophrenia, a complex, chronic brain disorder that affects around 3.5 million people in the United States, is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, lack of motivation, and cognitive issues. It’s not talked about as much as other types of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, and misconceptions are rife – which may be partly due to how it’s been portrayed in the media. So what movies get schizophrenia right, and what ones get it wrong?

Actor Russell Crowe attends the premiere of the film 'A Beautiful Mind.'
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A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Perhaps the best-known movie about schizophrenia, “A Beautiful Mind” is a powerful account of the life of mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash (Russell Crowe). While those familiar with the schizophrenia might say Nash’s hallucinations are portrayed in a hugely exaggerated manner – apart from the fact the idea that willpower can overcome the illness is completely ridiculous – many mental health professionals praised the film for creating a better understanding of schizophrenia.

Actor Eddie Redmayne and actress Julianne Moore attend the photocall for 'Savage Grace.'
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Savage Grace (2007)

Based on the true-life case of the infamous Baekeland family, “Savage Grace” features Eddie Redmayne as the troubled Tony, who has schizophrenia. However, his illness is merely hinted at until the shocking climax of the movie, which may leave some viewers feeling short-changed. It would be easy to watch this movie and be completely unaware that Tony is no more than just a guy with a quirky personality. That the film doesn’t do more to raise awareness of schizophrenia is disappointing.

Actress Mary Stuart Masterson attends Under the Gun NY Premiere Event.
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Benny & Joon (1993)

On the surface, “Benny & Joon,” starring Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn, and Johnny Depp, is a story of happiness and hope, showing the possibilities available to people with schizophrenia. However, viewers shouldn’t expect a realistic portrayal of the illness. Joon is simply given medication without any sort of cognitive or behavioral therapy, and she isn’t introduced to any positive examples of high-functioning schizophrenics. This results in the trivialization of serious, debilitating condition.

Actor Robin Williams appears onstage during MTV's Total Request Live at the MTV Times Square Studios.
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The Fisher King (1991)

“The Fisher King” features Robin Williams as Parry, who has schizophrenia. Or maybe he doesn’t. He suffered mental disturbance following the murder of his wife, which suggests post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but his religious delusions and hallucinations are more characteristic of schizophrenia. The danger is that the viewer assumes that all PTSD patients have schizophrenia, or that schizophrenia can be triggered by traumatic events, neither of which is true.

Actress Kerry Fox attends the photocall for 'Storm' as part of the 59th Berlin Film Festival at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
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An Angel at My Table (1990)

The film adaptation of author Janet Frame’s second autobiography examines one of the most relentless stereotypes of mental illness: the mad genius. Kerry Fox plays Frame, who was labeled as “different” throughout her life before receiving a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and undergoing eight years of psychiatric treatment, including electric shock therapy. Aside from telling Frame’s fascinating story, the film demonstrates the inconsistency of psychiatric disorder classifications.

Actor Robert Downey Jr. and actor Jamie Foxx arrive at the premiere of Dreamworks Pictures' 'The Soloist' held at the Paramount Studios Theater.
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The Soloist (2009)

“The Soloist” is an adaption of the true story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx), a previous student at the Julliard School of Music, who has schizophrenia. He forms a life-changing friendship with a reporter, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.). Generally, this movie is an accurate depiction of the prevailing ethical issues surrounding treatment of and attitudes toward those with schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness.

 Actor Michael Shannon attends the 'Take Shelter' New York premiere at the 57th Street Screening Room.
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Take Shelter (2011)

The award-winning “Take Shelter” centers on Curtis (Michael Shannon), who believes he is in the early stages of schizophrenia, an illness his mother was diagnosed with. It’s true that schizophrenia can run in families, and Curtis’s behavior does fit with his self-diagnosis of schizophrenia. He questions this throughout and even at the end of the movie, and the viewer is left with unanswered questions. This highlights the diagnostic difficulties involved in assessing patients with delusions.

Actor Ralph Fiennes poses for a portrait at the Royal National Theatre.
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Spider (2002)

In “Spider,” Ralph Fiennes plays Mr. Cleg, a man with schizophrenia who is released from a psychiatric hospital after 20 years. By switching between the inner and outer worlds of Mr. Cleg, the viewer questions what is true and what isn’t — giving them a glimpse into the world of someone with schizophrenia. However, critics of the movie take issue with the portrayal of someone with mental illness as dangerous and violent — as is so common when schizophrenia is featured on the big screen.

Jacqueline McKenzie attends the 7th AACTA Awards Presented by Foxtel.
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Angel Baby (1995)

The brutally realistic, award-winning “Angel Baby” uses schizophrenia as the premise of a love story. Harry (John Lynch) and Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie), who both have the illness, move in together and decide to have a child, but in order to do that they must stop taking their medication and risk going back to a life of hallucinations and delusions. This movie manages to tell Harry and Kate’s poignant, complex story without resorting to many of the clichés often found in films about mental illness.

Claire Gillespie
Meet Our Writer
Claire Gillespie

Claire Gillespie writes about mental health, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis and IBS for HealthCentral. She is a passionate about mental health awareness, and also writes about health and wellness for other sites, including Vice, SELF, Zocdoc, Reader’s Digest, and Healthline. You can follow her on Twitter @southpawclaire.