Mental Health at the Movies: Inside Out

Is Inside Out a movie about depression?

I remember when this excellent Pixar animated film came out in 2015 (now on Netflix! Go watch it, it’s awesome), that this was an interesting question posed by some reviewers and commentators.

I think that the movie is ultimately about normal emotional development, but there are some very scary moments in which the writers are clearly creating tension by leading the audience to fear protagonist Riley, an eleven year old girl adjusting to a family move, will tumble into depression:

Goofball Island collapses

In the above clip, one of Riley’s “islands of personality” (which represent important elements of who Riley is) collapses.  The crisis in Riley’s mind gets represented by the crumbling of these various islands like Goofball Island and Hockey Island, and each time it leads Riley to demonstrate a key symptom of depression.  Central to the diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder is decreased interest in activities that would ordinarily give one pleasure, a symptom that when severe we call anhedonia. Riley’s rejection of her favourite hobby, playing hockey and her withdrawal from goofing off with Mom and Dad, are concerning and are what we might call warning signs.

Another interesting scene that might imply we’re dealing with depression is this one:


The precipitant of the disastrous ejection of Joy and Sadness from Headquarters is represented in this scene as basically an accident, albeit an accident caused by Joy’s attempt to control everything (also interesting).  One of the baffling and infuriating aspects of suffering depression can be that sometimes an episode can happen without any obvious precipitant.

The central importance of the character Sadness is in my view what gives the movie its heart, and ultimately what points the way toward an understanding of the movie as being about normal emotional development.  Sadness starts off being the most under appreciated emotion of the five (Joy says early on: “I don’t really know what she does, but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else she is supposed to go. I’ve checked.”) and ends up saving the day.

The ending scene in the movie demonstrates a psychotherapeutic concept seemingly so obvious, yet often not: it is possible to feel more than one way about something, and that’s OK.

Multi-colour memories

What did you think about Inside Out?  Please comment below.

See my original review of Inside Out here.

If you are concerned that you may be suffering from depression, or are concerned about a loved one, here is a great community resource: The Mood Disorders Association of Ontario


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