How Chronic Illness is Depicted in Film

When you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that chronic illness should be such a favored theme in movies and television. After all, when you think of chronic illness, you automatically think of drama. You think of the big human emotions: hope and fear, struggle and triumph, joy and pain.

But if you’re one of the more than 130 million Americans living with chronic mental illness today, then you know that the vast majority of films depicting mental illness are far more fantasy than fact. The good news, though, is that for all the misfires, there are also several films and series that do get it right.

4 Examples of How Chronic Illness is Depicted in Film

Cake (2014)

Cake is a relatively little known jewel of a film starring Jennifer Aniston as Claire Bennett, a woman experiencing chronic pain in the aftermath of an accident that also claimed the life of her son. When a woman in her chronic pain support group commits suicide, Claire becomes fixated on the act, the life story of the woman she’d hardly known outside of the boundaries of the group, and what the implications of such an act might be for Claire’s own life.

Cake - Chronic Illness in Film

The film is at once gritty, unflinching, and often darkly funny — laugh-out-loud so. In other words, it’s a deeply insightful representation of what it means to live with chronic pain. And in a culture where those experiencing chronic pain have few options beyond the dire choice between highly addictive and highly dangerous opioids or no care at all, that kind of understanding is urgently needed.

And opening up that essential conversation about chronic pain may well be the first step in finding innovative solutions for those in need. For example, alternative treatments for chronic pain are being explored by sufferers and researchers alike, with natural supplements such as kratom showing significant promise for providing pain relief without the use of narcotics.

Philadelphia (1993)

The Academy Award-winning film, Philadelphia, isn’t without its flaws, including the subtle implication that an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is almost inevitably linked to male homosexuality. But the film quickly overcomes these overtones through Tom Hanks’ sensitive portrayal of a gay man in a monogamous relationship, surrounded by a loving and supportive family, and having built a successful professional career. This storied career, though, is brought to a devastating end when Hanks’ character finds himself wrongly terminated, and soon he is waging an intense legal battle against workplace discrimination.

Philadelphia - Chronic Illness In Film

But in addition to being a riveting courtroom drama, Philadelphia is also the story of a life well-lived, even in the face of a severe chronic illness. The film depicts its protagonist living a meaningful life and integrating his medical care into that life rather than allowing the condition to define or consume that life.

For instance, when you are facing any form of chronic illness, paying attention to lifestyle factors, such as adequate sleep and nutrition, is imperative. However, many treatment plans can come with significant side effects, as shown in this film.

For example, if your treatment plan includes certain types of pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), iron or potassium supplements, or the frequent use of antibiotics, you may experience severe gastrointestinal side effects. Indeed, over time, these medications can lead to the development of GERD, a condition that may make it difficult to maintain your nutrition. Managing your diet and making a few lifestyle changes, however, can help you minimize the symptoms of GERD and ensure you’re getting the calories and nutrients you need.

Preemie (2011)

The 2011 documentary film Preemie is a powerful look at the fight for life waged by our tiniest warriors and the families who adore them. People who haven’t experienced it can ever truly understand what it means to have a new baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or the extraordinary and often fearsome responsibilities parents face when they’re bringing their little ones home from the NICU.

From monitoring oxygen levels and learning to perform rescue breathing to negotiating tube feedings and keeping the baby’s environment meticulously sanitized, the pressures parents of preemies face can be overwhelming. This documentary not only illuminates them but makes a profound argument for increased awareness and, above all, for much more affordable, accessible, and high-quality support for parents and babies.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

The multi-Oscar winning film, A Beautiful Mind, is perhaps one of the best representations of severe mental illness in modern Hollywood history. The film tells the story of the illustrious mathematician and schizophrenic, John Nash, deftly portrayed by Russell Crowe.

A Beautiful Mind - Chronic Illness in Film

The power of the film is that audiences get to view the world through Nash’s eyes, which is a stark, and brilliant, reversal of the traditional mental illness narrative. Above all, perhaps, the film demonstrates that it is possible to manage even the most severe mental illness, to live with profound psychiatric disorders, and still build a home and a career. Most importantly, the film makes this important point without sugarcoating, minimizing, or romanticizing the struggles that patients and their families endure.

The Takeaway

Chronic illness often makes for a great storyline, and that’s why it’s such a recurring theme in film and television. But all too often, Hollywood’s representations of illness have very little resemblance to reality. There are, though, some films that do get it right, showing patients and families who are simply ordinary human beings just like the rest of us, people learning to live with illness, rather than being overtaken and consumed by it.

Watch this space for updates in the Movies category on Running Wolf’s Rant.

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Staff Writer

Running Wolf's Rant's correspondent who chooses to remain anonymous...

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