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Reel Therapy: Mental Health in the Movies

Reel Therapy: Mental Health in the Movies

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by Shannon Haragan, MA, MFA, LPC-I

What’s your favorite movie? I’ll give you a few seconds here. [Pause] Got it? Great! Okay, now WHY is it your favorite movie? Your answer may be that you loved the storyline, or the action sequences, or that it kept you on the edge of your seat, or one of many other reasons. Here’s the thing: Regardless of your reasons, I’m willing to bet it’s because of how those things impacted you emotionally. Movies take us on a journey. The most powerful movies have an amazing ability to basically commandeer our minds and hearts. We are gripped, and, somehow, we land in a different place than where we started.

Watching a film, we can identify with the characters on screen, join them on their emotional journey, observe the consequences of their choices, the patterns in their relationships, their defeats and their victories. Some movies can provide an emotional catharsis by making us cry; others decrease stress hormones and boost our immune system by making us laugh. There are loads of articles and blogs written about movies and empathy, mirror neurons, and the physiological impact of the various emotions experienced while watching movies (written by people much smarter than I am!), so I won’t dip my toes into those waters here.

Here’s what I will dip my toe into: Movies have the power to change us. This is the whole point of cinematherapy. Finding an appropriate film for a particular issue or diagnosis, however, can be challenging. There are a few cinematherapy lists online, but they tend to list the same films and/or only offer the most obvious options that you’ve probably already seen.

So. Here’s a Whitman’s sampler of a growing list of movies that have changed me or those close to me. All of these films can be rented or streamed, checked out from your local library, or found on YouTube, in a couple of cases. Of course, so much of this is entirely subjective: What I like or respond to may not be your–or your client’s–cup of tea, so it’s a good idea to pre-screen a film before recommending it to a client, to make sure it’s appropriate to their particular situation and not triggering. These films are categorized by issue or diagnoses, and are a little more focused on “next steps” and “deep cuts,” rather than the “essentials” you may have already seen. You can also check What’s so Great about Gatsby?, Why the Imitation Game Matters, and Caregiver Burnout and The Theory of Everything for blog posts about movies and how they relate to mental health. 

About Schmidt (2002)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Unstrung Heroes (1995)
Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself) (2002)

Anxiety Disorders and OCD:
Adaptation (2002)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Annie Hall (1977)
Matchstick Men (2003)
Waiting for Ronald (2003) (short)

Ordinary People (1980)
Dear Zachary: a Letter to a Son About his Father (2008)
Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)
Three Colors: Blue (in French, with subtitles; 1993)
Ponette (in French, with subtitles, 1996)
What Dreams May Come (1998)

Schizophrenia & Psychosis:
An Angel at my Table (1990)
Spider (2002)
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2002)

Bipolar Disorder:
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Mr. Jones (1993)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Trauma and Abuse:
Prince of Tides (1991)
Mysterious Skin (2004)
Once Were Warriors (1994)
Extremities (1986)

Martian Child (2007)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Billy Elliot (2000)

Being There (1979)
Mary and Max (2009)
The Imitation Game (2014)
Temple Grandin (2010)

Forgiveness and Reconciliation:
Warrior (2011)
Magnolia (1999)
The Lives of Others (in German, with subtitles; 2006)
Marvin’s Room (1996)
Atonement (2007)

General Inspiration, Hope, Resiliency:
At Night I Fly (documentary, 2011)
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
About Time (2013)
The Straight Story (1999)
127 Hours (2010)
Touching the Void (2003)
War/Dance (documentary, 2007)

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