The 11 Best documentaries about mental institutions

Aug 5, 2023 | Best Of

Mental institutions evoke a unique set of emotions – fear, curiosity, sadness and compassion. They are places that house individuals with mental health issues, where their lives can be vastly different from those living in the outside world. But what makes them so fascinating? A look into these mysterious locations can be found through documentaries that capture everyday life at mental institutions. Whether you are looking to understand the complex issues surrounding mental illness or sate your curiosity about life within a psychiatric hospital, these documentaries can provide an in-depth look into what goes on behind closed doors. Here is a list of some of the best documentaries that explore the world of mental institutions.


Unit of Difficult Patients: What Future for the Criminally Insane? (2017)

Welcome to a gripping and thought-provoking documentary that will challenge your perception of violent criminals. Deep in the heart of France lies a facility like no other, where mentally ill individuals who have committed heinous crimes are held. But what separates these individuals from monsters? And should they be treated as such?






Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (1997)

The Willowbrook State School for people with developmental disabilities was the setting of a shocking revelation that shook New York City and the entire nation. It was a nightmare that was brought to light by Geraldo Rivera, who boldly entered the infamous institution with a film crew in 1972.






Out of Mind, Out of Sight (2014)

Have you ever wondered what happens to those who commit violent crimes while suffering from mental illnesses? It’s a question that often goes unanswered, as these individuals are hidden away in forensic psychiatric hospitals. Once known as asylums for the criminally insane, these facilities hold patients out of public view for years. But what truly goes on behind closed doors?





Voices From Within (2017)

Experience a world shrouded in mystery and rarely seen by the outside. “Voices From Within” takes you on an intimate journey inside the walls of a mental institution housing some of society’s most misunderstood individuals – the criminally insane. Through their eyes, we witness life at Saint Elizabeths Hospital as never before. For the first time, cameras are placed into the hands of four long-time residents: Jimmy, Lew, Kevin and Calvin.





Broadmoor: A History of the Criminally Insane (2012)

Take a deep dive into the dark world of Britain’s most infamous criminals with criminology expert David Wilson. Through gripping interviews and in-depth research, gain insight into the minds and lives of these notorious figures and the environments that shaped them. Join us as we unravel the chilling stories behind some of Britain’s most heinous crimes.







The Best Free Documentaries about Mental Institutions


The wards of forensic psychiatry are far from ordinary, a place where the most gravely disordered individuals find refuge. It is a world that has until now been kept hidden behind locked doors and barred windows, but cameras have finally been allowed to capture what lies beyond. This program captures raw emotion as these patients come to terms with their pasts and strive for another chance. The walls of the ward enclose a community of over 100 people, all of whom have committed actions of extreme violence and are deemed too mentally ill to be held in a prison. The question then arises; how can one grant these individuals release after such terrible acts? This program follows patients as they face the prospect of discharge, many times after being under lock and key for decades.


The South London and Maudsley (SLaM) Psychiatric Institution is one of the oldest in the world, but its doors remain open to show the public a side of mental illness that has long been steeped in myths, taboos, and stigma. Lambeth Hospital in south London has pioneered a new way to handle patients in crisis: short-stay emergency wards. Designed much like an A and E department for those suffering from mental health issues, the hospital is allowing cameras inside to document the decisions that take place every day by psychiatrists and nurses. It’s a harrowing yet important process: clinicians must evaluate each patient and determine if they are fit enough to return home or require long-term care in a psychiatric ward. Most of the individuals who enter are considered to pose a threat to themselves or others, and arrive either under the Mental Health Act or through voluntary commitment. By allowing access into this formerly sealed-off world, SLaM is beginning to challenge preconceived notions of mental health care in Britain.


Mental health is a journey without boundaries. Through this exploration, psychologist Dr. Mukesh Lathia invites us to come along and discover what lies beneath the surface of some of life’s toughest challenges. From individuals grappling with mental illness, understanding the importance of professional help in managing these conditions, to discussing how medication and therapy can be used together for best results – this documentary is set to bring light and hope. At the same time, we respect that everyone’s path to mental health is unique; something which should be embraced. We want to spark conversation around this important topic and reduce any stigma associated with it. To encourage these conversations, we ask for your help in spreading understanding and compassion – two vital components of progress.


Experience the eerie and unnerving atmosphere of Central State Mental Institution in Indianapolis. Dan T. Hall and his crew take you on an exclusive tour, investigating tales of hauntings from former staff and patients who have been inside these walls. As we traverse the grounds, our expert team will reveal the secrets they uncover while revealing never-before seen footage of this supernatural history. Follow us through dark hallways and explore the unknown as we uncover what really happened behind closed doors. Prepare to be shocked and horrified by this intimate account of Central State’s disturbing past. Be sure to keep the lights on when you sleep tonight – if you dare! The team also investigates various paranormal theories, such as ghostly apparitions, strange hauntings and even time anomalies. As we explore the grounds, they will explain how these phenomena can be scientifically explained and what evidence supports their claims. With a combination of interviews, research, theories and stories from those who have been inside the walls, we will uncover the true mystery of Central State’s dark history.Be prepared to suspend your disbelief as you venture into the unknown – this experience will leave you shaking in fear and awe. Step inside the asylum and discover its supernatural past.


This documentary is an eye-opening exploration into the world of schizophrenia, providing viewers with a unique and powerful insight that can only be gained through intimate conversations between patients and their psychiatrists. The film delves deep into the complexities of this devastating mental illness – from its symptoms such as delusions, paranoia and hallucinations, to difficulties in thinking and expressing themselves. It also highlights the stigma that surrounds this illness and how it can lead to unfair treatment for those suffering from it. By educating viewers on the realities of living with schizophrenia, this documentary hopes to lead to a more informed perception of mental illness so that everyone can be treated fairly and respectfully. So please watch and share this important story because these individuals need to be heard.


As Britain’s mental asylums closed their doors to patients, a fascinating story was told by those left behind. 150,000 people had been taken from the comfort of their home and placed in vast Victorian institutions dotted across the country during the post-war period. But times changed and mental health care has shifted significantly – today, most are living outside of these facilities, and the institutions are all but gone. Through remarkable testimony from nurses, doctors, and those who lived the experience of being in an asylum, this film uncovers a seismic shift in society’s attitude to mental illness over the last sixty years. We learn about the impact these changes have had on patients’ lives and how they’ve been shaped by their journeys through care. The film is an unforgettable portrait of a world that has disappeared, but which still resonates today.


Three patients at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, a facility renowned for housing some of the most troubled and dangerous individuals in the National Health Service, were facing their biggest challenge yet – discharge from a place that has been home for many years. A daunting prospect for anyone, these individuals face not only a changed world but also the uncertain future of an NHS patient with complex needs. The documentary follows their stories, revealing the joys and struggles of a life beyond institutionalisation, as they adapt to a world that is anything but familiar. As each patient takes their first tentative steps outside, the emotional journey will be unpredictable. We are given an intimate insight into the lives of those who have spent decades in the same place and must now learn how to live and thrive in a society that has moved on. With no easy answers or solutions, this is a unique look at the difficult questions of what it means to be released from institutional care. A heart-warming and sometimes heartbreaking story, this documentary shines a light on the human spirit’s resilience and strength in the face of adversity.


Bipolar Disorder is a condition that many struggle to fully comprehend. In this compelling documentary, psychotherapist Philippa Perry dives deep into the lives of three individuals living with Bipolar Disorder, each with their own unique story. Through her exploration, we uncover various explanations for the disorder; be it genetic or environmental. Furthermore, Philippa examines different treatments used by those living with Bipolar Disorder, from prescription drugs to alternative therapies. Get ready for a powerful experience as Philippa unravels the complexities of this widely misunderstood condition.


Mental health has been a popular topic in movies and tv shows lately, from ‘Joker’ to ‘The Undoing.’ But what do these films really have to say about mental illness? Psychiatrist Eric Bender dives head first into the psychoanalytic world of silver screens, exploring characters like BoJack Horseman from Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, and even Joy from Inside Out. By analyzing these films and their characters, Bender is able to shed light on how they can help inform our understanding of mental health issues. He goes beyond simply viewing the surface level narrative, instead delving deep into the psychological machinations of each character. With his keen eye for detail, Bender breaks down the intricacies of each character’s emotional and psychological states, exploring how their struggles with mental illness can be seen as a metaphor for our own. He brings to life the complexities that exist the human mind, from Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of OCD in As Good as it Gets to Winona Ryder’s interpretation of borderline personality disorder in Girl Interrupted. By viewing these characters through the lens of mental health, Bender is able to provide viewers with an insightful and touching look into the lives of those suffering from mental illness. Whether it’s delving into Lars and the Real Girl’s loneliness or dissecting Silver Linings Playbook’s depiction of bipolar disorder, Bender gives us a window into the unique experiences that come with mental health struggles. Through his expert analysis, he gives us a better understanding of the issues that come with mental health, and how films can be used as tool to help us empathize with sufferers. With his help, we can learn to recognize and sympathize with those suffering from mental illness, and gain a clearer insight into our own experiences.


For over a century and a half, Broadmoor Hospital has been renowned as the final destination for some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK. But this former prison-like atmosphere has taken on an entirely new complexion due to recent advances. Nowadays, it is considered a place where mentally impaired offenders can find solace and hope for rehabilitation. Positive transformations are being made in the lives of these inmates, allowing them to live more meaningful and productive lives. Through the use of innovative therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and art therapy, individuals can begin to address their own psychological issues and gain a sense of control over their behaviour.


This feature-length documentary film, From Lunacy to Legacy, shines a light on the Crownsville State Mental Hospital in Maryland. It draws from many cinematic sources, such as “The Thin Blue Line,” telling a story of life and death within the institution’s walls. This is not only an exploration of the past but also an insight into the present day. Through interviews with former patients, staff, and family members, the film will explore how mental health care has evolved over time and how it is changing today. It also delves into the challenges faced by those who are still living in Crownsville State Mental Hospital and those struggling with mental illness throughout the world. From Lunacy to Legacy is a tale of heartache and hope, and an exploration of the concepts of empathy and understanding. Ultimately, this documentary aims to inform viewers about mental health issues while inspiring them to challenge the stigma surrounding it. Thus, we invite you to join us on our journey as we search for answers in a world filled with strife.





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David B