5 Must-See Documentaries On The Mental Health System

Mental health is just as important as physical health; the two actually cannot be severed since they affect each other so much. According to the World Health Organization, “mental and social well-being” are both part of what comprises good health, but global society has been slow to acknowledge this fact. Slashed budgets, the criminalization of mental illness, and lack of research all contribute to a global mental health crisis. How bad is it? Take a look at these five documentaries to get an idea:

“Children of Darkness” (1983)

Nominated for an Oscar, this PBS documentary from the 1980’s focuses on the Eastern State School and Hospital, which once operated in Trevose, Pennsylvania; the Elan School in Maine; and the South Beach psychiatric hospital in Staten Island. For decades, these institutions treated mentally-ill and troubled children, but no one knew what they were doing. Many kids died, leaving their parents without real answers. Many of these people are interviewed, along with staff.

It’s interesting to watch this documentary knowing what we do now; in 2004, one of the drugs South Beach prescribed was removed from the market because of its effects on the heart, while the Elan School’s treatment of patients triggered the institution’s shutdown. Difficult to watch, “Children of Darkness” reveals the consequences of ignorance and fear surrounding mental illness.

“Are The Kids Alright?” (2004)

Filmmaker Ellen Spiro takes viewers to Texas, where we get to know several families as they try to get help for their ill children. All aspects of mental health care come together, whether it’s in the psychiatrist’s office or courtroom. At the time, over 400,000 young people in Texas dealt with mental illness severe enough to impair their ability to function in society, and Spiro deftly tells just a few of their stories. A teenager struggles with suicide attempts while her grandmother tries to raise her. A father unable to afford care tries to give up his parental rights so his suicidal and violent son can finally get help, but a judge refuses. “Are The Kids Alright?” won the Lone Star Emmy, as well as several other awards


“Don’t Call Me Crazy” (2013)

850,000 young people from the United Kingdom report having a mental health issue, according to charity YoungMinds. 1 in 12 have self-harmed. Available on Netflix, “Don’t Call Me Crazy,” a three-part documentary from the UK, takes viewers into what treatment is like for six young people, including Beth, who suffers from an eating disorder, and Crystal, who deals with auditory hallucinations and psychotic episodes. The footage is often deeply-unsettling and triggering as filmmakers don’t shy away from showing physical confrontations, fresh self-harm wounds, room searches, and more. Reviewers say it’s balanced by information about a support helpline and the film never becomes exploitative.

“A Dangerous Son” (2018)

Director Liz Garbus follows three American mothers, each with a emotionally-disturbed son. One of the mothers (Liza Long) wrote the controversial essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” which detailed how she is afraid her own son would one day commit violence like Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter. These boys were resistant to normal treatment, but since the 1960’s, the number of beds in hospital psychiatric units went down from 600,000 to fewer than 60,000. The idea was to deinstitutionalize mental health, but no alternative options were made available. All it did was make it much harder for parents to get their kids help. Things only got worse – between 2009-2012, American states cut mental health budgets by $5 billion. Often only the wealthy can afford care, leaving mothers like Long feeling helpless.

“Hidden Pictures” (2013)

Delaney Ruston is a filmmaker and physician with a personal connection to her subject. Her father suffered from schizophrenia, defining much of her childhood. After making “Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia” about their relationship, she travels the world in “Hidden Pictures,” revealing mental health on a global scale. Stories come from all over, like India, South Africa, France, and back home to the US. Viewers learn how different cultures view mental health and how they receive care. Most importantly, “Hidden Pictures” puts a few faces to the 450 million (WHO numbers) who live with mental illness.

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