I was told Inside Out was a movie about depression.
I was very late watching Pixar’s latest tear-jerker offering (as in, I watched it for the first time last week), so I had plenty of time to hear what other people thought about the movie, and that was the message that stuck. Inside Out is about depression.
So imagine my surprise when I finally saw it, and didn’t think it was about depression at all. Not even metaphorically. It sounds like it should be — Joy and Sadness go missing, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to control a twelve year old girl’s brain — but the story only covers a couple of days, and the ultimate message is more about what happens when a person feels unable to express sadness than about mental illness. Although it’s a good tool to approach discussions of depression, especially with children, it’s really a story about mental wellness, and the importance of accepting and processing all emotions, including negative ones.
In fact, I think we do Inside Out a disservice by saying it’s about a girl with depression. Riley struggles with her emotions throughout the movie. as she faces huge change for the first time in her otherwise happy life. But she’s reacting to concrete, immediate events — moving to a new home, losing her friends, being forced to sleep on the floor with none of her possessions, and embarrassing herself at school and at ice hockey. Her key memories switch from happy ones to sad ones as they’re tinged by loss, and that too is totally normal when undergoing that sort of intense change. If we interpret a few days worth of very valid anger and sadness as a story about depression, we’re missing the entire point of the movie, which is that it’s healthy and normal to feel negative emotions too.
But that message is incredibly valuable when thinking about depression. The unhealthy part of Riley’s brain is the insistence that she must always, always be happy. In the movie, this is shown as Joy being a bit of a control freak, taking the expression of any other emotion as a failure on her part and a black mark on Riley’s life. When Riley doesn’t feel happy, she won’t allow herself to be sad, so she’s just left with Fear, Anger and Disgust. And although Riley is a twelve year old girl, I think this emotional struggle applies to people of all ages and all mental health statuses. Many of us, especially women, feel that we have to repress all “bad” feelings and can feel guilty for facing the world with anything other than happiness and gratitude. We worry that our sadness will make others judge us or dislike us, or that our negative emotions make us selfish or bad people.
This struggle can become particularly acute in depressed brains, as we feel that we don’t have a reason to be depressed and so hate ourselves more and more for not being happier. Inside Out tells us to accept Sadness as a valid and important emotion, and that’s a powerful message for all of us fighting against our negative feelings, whatever the context may be.
Inside Out also shows the breakdown of Riley’s “personality islands,” and although in the context of the movie, this is because Riley is confused about her identity after losing most of her old life, the way that her defining traits and interests crumble away is a great visual for the way that depression can seem to steal the things that we value most about ourselves. In the non-depression sense, Riley’s story shows that external change and sadness can alter the key things in our personality, but that these things can come back, stronger than ever. It also suggests that we are not built up of separate worlds — Riley’s family is not separate from hockey is not separate from honesty. They all feed into one another, and they belong on one island together. From a depression perspective, where the breakdown of these defining traits can feel far more damaging and permanent, it also provides hope. These things are not lost forever. They can be rebuilt, once emotional balance returns, and although they may be different, they will also be stronger for what we’ve endured.
Inside Out isn’t about depression, but it does have useful things to say about depression, indirectly, while speaking about mental well-being in general. It’s an exploration of what healthy emotional balance looks like, with an incredibly important message for everyone draining themselves by struggling to regulate their emotions: it’s all right to feel sadness too.