Inside Out & Mental Health

As someone with mental disorders, I have to say I was a little nervous to see Inside Out.  The way the movie delved into the human mind in such a peppy, caricatured way both worried and interested me.  Would it stay in the realm of humor and light-heartedness, or would it maybe explore what might happen when all someone’s emotions aren’t quite in check? Could this movie, perhaps, provide people with a comprehensible metaphor for disorders?

Half of me went into the theater hoping for the latter, wishing for a movie aimed at kids to finally tackle mental disorders — and the other half of me hoped they’d stay well away from the area, lest they should just make mental disorders even more misunderstood.  I tried not to invest myself too much in the film, so I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it took a turn for the worse, but by the end of the movie, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Disney/Pixar did choose to tackle one mental disorder, and in my opinion they did it pretty well.

Inside Out is centered around the idea that people operate on five main emotions — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear — that work together in the “headquarters” of their person to make sure they stay content and functioning.  In the beginning of the movie, Joy is clearly Riley’s primary emotion.  Despite being downcast about having to move to a new state, leaving all her friends back in Minnesota, she manages to maintain an honestly upbeat outlook on things, and her parents thank her for remaining their “happy girl.”  A little ways into the film, however, Riley loses access to two of her emotions: Joy and Sadness, leaving her with only Anger, Disgust, and Fear.

My hope for the movie was that Joy would go missing, and we would then see what happened to Riley as she tried to go on without one of her vital emotions, but having her lose Sadness, too, was an even better move.  Although depression takes on different forms for different people, I think it’s safe to say that for most, depression isn’t actually being depressed in the sense of being sad.  Quite often, depression is having to force emotions that you don’t actually feel (which are usually the ones that make sense in whatever situation you’re in), and having to try to control the emotions you feel too much (the ones that don’t make sense).

This is exactly the nonsensical, frustrated behavior Riley exhibits when she tries to talk to her parents with only Anger, Fear, and Disgust at hand.  Her attention isn’t focused; she hardly looks at her parents as she snaps back irritable responses without understanding why she’s doing it (“What was that? I though you said we were going to act casual!” Fear narrates).

In the following scene, Riley’s father comes up to her room and tries to raise her spirits with a joke the two used to enjoy.  Riley merely stares at him, unable to find it funny.

We watch her judgment cloud, her relationships with her friends and family crumble, and her interests fade away.  We watch her shut down (displayed literally as Anger, Fear, and Disgust grasp hopelessly at a control panel that won’t respond to any of their commands as it begins to break down), and we see that no one, not even Riley herself, can help because the problem was caused by an imbalance in Riley’s mind that she has no control over.  She literally cannot change her outlook on things, because her brain has not given her the proper tools to.

Although it was a heartbreaking moment, it felt absolutely amazing to finally see that happen in a movie — especially a kids’ movie.  Far too many children go without help simply because they don’t understand what’s happening to them and don’t see why they need to ask for help, or because their parents don’t want to label them and end up mistaking a serious disorder for “just a part of growing up.”  I hope Inside Out will help children understand what they’re going through and how to explain it to others, and that it will help friends and family understand how to help (and why “think positive!” does far more harm than good in some situations).

I believe Inside Out will also be a help to children without disorders.  For the majority of the movie, we watch Joy shoving Sadness aside, trying to keep her out of Riley’s life entirely, and we see the disaster that ensues because of it.  In real life, we’re often told to “cheer up” or to “look on the bright side” because “life is good,” even if it’s a perfectly reasonable moment to not feel happy.

It’s never a good feeling to try and stuff an emotion away and tell yourself you’re feeling a different one, and at the end of this movie, the very obvious message is that having a plethora of emotions is okay.  It’s okay to feel.  Riley’s memories (represented as little orbs that glow the color of the emotion that accompanied them) — which were previously policed by Joy, who made sure all the other emotions kept well away from them — turn from all-yellow to a beautiful mix of colors as her emotions finally learn to work together.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to convince myself that I had a good day, when I really didn’t feel so good at the time.  Then, one day, I remember writing in my journal, “parts of the day were good, and parts of the day weren’t, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”  It may seem like a simple thought, but it was the most liberating feeling in the world to finally accept it and stop trying to make everything all good all the time.

Inside Out may not have touched on many (still highly misunderstood) disorders — and it may not have been its intention to feature any — but in my opinion, what it did, it did well.

…Oh, and one more thing.  Everyone’s emotions were personified as either all female or all male, except for Riley’s, which were a mix of both.  Could we, perhaps, have our first non-binary Pixar character?

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