Movie Therapy: Using Movies for Mental Health

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Can watching a film like The Departed help you cope with your own betrayals? Does The Queen make you think about your place in class and society? And can a movie like Letters From Iwo Jima teach you anything about war and conflict?

Proponents of cinema therapy say that, in addition to getting award nods, these and other movies can and will change the way we think, feel, and ultimately deal with life’s ups and downs.

An increasing number of therapists prescribe movies to help their patients explore their psyches. And while few therapists have actually gone so far as to package their practices around cinema therapy, movies — like art, books, and music — are becoming one more tool to help those in therapy achieve their goals and overcome their hurdles. And books with such titles as Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning and Cinematherapy for Lovers: The Girl’s Guide to Finding True Love One Movie at a Time are finding their own niche in the self-help sections of many bookstores.

“Cinema therapy is the process of using movies made for the big screen or television for therapeutic purposes,” says Gary Solomon, PhD, MPH, MSW, author of The Motion Picture Prescription and Reel Therapy.

“It can have a positive effect on most people except those suffering from depression or other serious psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia or amnesia, to write, produce, and direct their own movies.

“We work with patients who tend to have personal interests in making a movie or a screenplay and are already working with a therapist,” says Joshua Flanders, CIMI’s executive director.

“We will be brought in as a consultant to work with the patient and therapist to edit screenplays, rehearse scenes, and try out people,” he says.

“The process of filmmaking provides a certain amount of therapy, organization, and order that people with psychological diseases need, and it helps the therapist see what the conflicts are within their patients lives,” Flanders explains.

In a sense, making a movie or creating a screenplay enables the therapist or loved ones to see the world through this person’s eyes.

In the past, Flanders has seen people make “enormous breakthroughs” with this form of cinema therapy.

A Word of Caution

But patients should not cancel their next therapy session to catch a matinee, cautions Bruce Skalarew, MD, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and the co-chairman for the Forum for Psychoanalytic Study of Film.

Movies are often used in therapy or analysis, Skalarew tells WebMD.

“People will bring up a movie or a book, and the selection process of what they hone in on can be a clue to some obvious — or not so obvious — conflict that they are working with,” he says.

If the therapist is familiar with the movie, he or she can see distortions or anything the viewer may have emphasized, de-emphasized, or left out for deeper insights into their personal issues and struggles.

That said, Skalarew cautions that he is not advocating cinema therapy or movies as a prime means of therapy. “Like art therapy, dance therapy, and music, you can bring it into a traditional form of therapy, and as an accessory it can be very useful.”