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3 Films That Psychologists Applaud For Their Depiction Of Psychological Disorders

Want a true glimpse into some of the most misunderstood disorders in the world? Add these three movies to your watch-list.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 21, 2024

The human mind can be hard to grasp, especially when it comes to abnormalities. Sadly, Hollywood is not immune to this difficulty, as some films advertised as being psychologically driven simply don't hit the mark. Too often, the narratives surrounding these psychological concepts are simplified—which leaves viewers with skewed perceptions of what they actually look like in reality.

However, there are some notable exceptions. These three films have been widely praised for their meticulous attention to detail in clinically and precisely depicting psychopathological concepts. Their commitment to portraying these abnormalities in a manner that is true to life has garnered critical acclaim from psychologists—as they offer a true glimpse into some of the most commonly misunderstood conditions in the world.

1. Black Swan (2010)

Ironically, numerous viewers have criticized Black Swan for poorly depicting schizophrenia. However, this criticism is based on a misconception—as the film does not, in fact, portray schizophrenia. According to Dr. Steve Lamberti—professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center—in a 2010 interview with ABC News shortly after the movie's release, "the film did not accurately depict schizophrenia, as has been widely speculated, but it does present a reasonable portrait of psychosis."

Psychosis is a highly misunderstood condition. Many people fail to recognize that it is often a symptom of broader mental health issues rather than a disorder in itself. According to a 2015 study, psychosis involves a loss of contact with reality—which can manifest through hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thinking. Contrary to common misconceptions, psychosis does not necessarily mean violent or bizarre behavior; rather, it signifies a deeply distressing break from reality that can severely impact an individual's life.

Natalie Portman's portrayal of Nina Sayers in Black Swan is a brilliant depiction of what psychosis looks like. Her character's gradual loss of touch with reality is depicted from start to finish in a way that exemplifies how upsetting, disturbing and confusing this condition can be for those experiencing it. Viewers will struggle to distinguish between what's real and what's not until it's too late—mirroring Nina's own experience. This narrative device poignantly conveys the turmoil and disorientation inherent in psychosis, making Black Swan a powerful film that authentically captures the essence of this often-misunderstood condition.

2. The Aviator (2005)

Many people chalk obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) up to just being a "neat freak" or a "perfectionist." However, in reality, this disorder is far more consuming and excruciating than simply being pedantic about keeping your home clean—and The Aviator makes this very clear. In a 2012 analysis, Dr. Anne Chosak of Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for OCD expressed, "The Aviator provides a realistic and sensitive portrayal of one man's decades-long struggle with OCD."

According to a 2019 study, OCD involves disturbing obsessions and, consequently, exhausting compulsions that lead to massive disruptions in daily life:

  1. Obsessions are intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images or urges that cause significant anxiety.
  2. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts performed to reduce the distress caused by these obsessions.

OCD manifests in various forms—such as obsessive and compulsive behaviors regarding harm, symmetry, hoarding and even intrusive aggressive or sexual thoughts. One form is contamination OCD—which is not nearly as simple as hand washing and sanitizing. Rather, it's an all-consuming fear of germs and contamination.

Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator is a prime example of how debilitating contamination OCD can be, despite sufferers' awareness of the irrationality of their thoughts. Viewers may be off-put or baffled by the lengths Howard takes to satisfy his desires for cleanliness and perfection—but this only captures a fraction of the discomfort and distress that OCD sufferers experience every second of their lives. The film illustrates the immense struggle and the relentless nature of OCD, and acts as a window into the reality of living with this often misunderstood disorder.

3. Uncut Gems (2019)

Many people struggle to understand addiction. They witness the progressive derailment of individuals' lives at the hands of their addiction and wonder why they choose to continue this "lifestyle." However, people fail to recognize that this "lifestyle" is not a choice—it is the product of a bona fide sickness. Uncut Gems gets this spot-on. According to a 2020 article from Cambridge Health Alliance's Brief Addiction Science Information Source, "It is important that the media and press portray Gambling Disorder accurately, and the 2019 film Uncut Gems does just that."

According to a July 2019 research study from Nature Reviews Disease Primers, gambling addiction is more than just occasional betting or a bad habit; it is a pervasive and consuming compulsion that takes over an individual's life. Unlike the common misconception that gambling addiction is merely about chasing a thrill or being irresponsible with money, it is characterized by an uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the severe negative consequences. This disorder often leads to a destructive cycle of highs and lows, with moments of euphoria followed by deep despair—as individuals are drawn into increasingly risky bets in a desperate attempt to recoup losses or achieve a fleeting sense of victory.

Adam Sandler's portrayal of Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems captures the back-and-forth nature of gambling addiction with remarkable authenticity. Ratner's life is a chaotic whirlwind of high-stakes bets, desperate schemes and moments of sheer panic as he juggles debts, relationships and his insatiable need to gamble. Sandler's performance vividly illustrates the consuming and vacillating nature of the disorder, showing how the addiction controls and distorts every aspect of the sufferer's life. The film leaves viewers unsettled, yet drawn into Ratner's relentless pursuit of the next big win—a testament to Uncut Gems' powerful and accurate portrayal of the devastating impact of gambling addiction.

Do you often consume psychologically inaccurate content? Take the Psychological Misconception Questionnaire to know more.

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