How Watching Movies Can Help Your Mental HealthIt’s a long holiday weekend in the U.S. and the official start of the Christmas season. This time of year is filled with gatherings of friends, families, and coworkers, twinkly lights, lots of goodies to nibble on and a pumpkin spice latte or two. It also usually contains overspending, overeating, and overstressing.

The time of year is also the prime winter movie season. You can expect to see a lot of family films, big-budget blockbusters, and serious dramas angling for awards consideration. Whether you to go watch something on a big screen in a theater or turn the TV at home to Hulu or Netflix, watching (and reading) fiction can help your mental health in various ways.

Cinema Therapy

“Cinema therapy” is a real thing sometimes prescribed by therapists. However, it’s usually a self-administered opportunity to do interventional work by yourself. Cinema therapy is the process of using movies made for the big screen or television for therapeutic purposes.  For the self-helper, books with names like Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning and Reel Therapy, are available. The idea is that movies can change the way you think, feel, and ultimately deal with life’s ups and downs.

Gary Solomon, Ph.D., MPH, MSW, author of The Motion Picture Prescription and Reel Therapy, says:

The idea is to choose movies with themes that mirror your current problem or situation. For example, if you or a loved has a substance abuse problem, he suggests Clean and Sober or When a Man Loves a Woman, or if you are coping with the loss — or serious illness — of a loved one, he may suggest Steel Magnolias or Beaches.”

How Watching Movies Can Help

Movies encourage emotional release.

When watching the happenings on a screen, a person may end up sobbing, laughing hysterically, or showing emotions freely which they might not feel comfortable doing on their own. This can have a cathartic effect and can also get them more accustomed to expressing emotion. Doing so can be an important precursor or accompaniment to being able to open up in counseling or real life.

One common symptom of depression is a kind of emotional numbness – an inability to feel emotions at all, good or bad. A movie can help a person start to open up and feel emotions again.

Sad films can make you happier.

Yes, happier.  When you watch a sad film you are more likely to come away from it thinking about loved ones and feeling happier about what you have. In one study where students watch a version of the movie Atonement, they rated themselves much happier with their lives right after viewing the tragic tale than they had just before seeing it. Tragedies, it seems, make people more appreciative of the blessings and important relationships in their lives which translates to feeling happier.

Movies can help you make sense of real-life.

Myths and narratives about fantastic beings, heroes, and gods have been around forever. Human beings are story-telling animals. Learning and knowledge have been passed down for thousands of years through stories. Stories are the way we understand and make sense of the world. A good story engages a person’s curiosity, emotions, and imagination. Movies are stories that can help us see the world in a different way and from a different perspective.

Movies give you a mental break.

Your mind gets a rest from whatever it is that it’s been working on when you watch a movie — even if it is only for a few hours. It allows your brain to unplug and reenergize. You can turn on the television or slip into a movie theater and be immediately transported to another time in another state, country, or even galaxy. When you get lost in a different world for a little while, your mind is focused on the present moment and your concerns fall away. Movies provide a form of mental distraction which can be a healthy and adaptive coping tool when used appropriately.

Scary movies can actually calm anxiety.

It seems like the exact opposite would be true. The article Why Some Anxious People Find Comfort in Horror Movies quotes Dr. Mathias Clasen from Aarhus University in Denmark who has been studying the psychological effects of horror movies for 15 years as saying:

Exposure to horror films can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the film are manageable. Moreover, there’s psychological distance when we watch a horror film. We know it’s not real—or at least, some parts of our brain know it isn’t real. Other parts—ancient structures located in the limbic system—respond as though it were real.”

Movies bring relief – even if they stress you out first.

You might experience a cathartic release when someone narrowly escapes doom or the underdog character is victorious against the odds. When you watch something tense or suspenseful, your brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone. However, at the resolution of the story, you get a hit of dopamine, a naturally produced opioid that brings about feelings of pleasure.

The Best Movies About Mental Health

Here’s a list of the best movies about mental health issues from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

It’s becoming increasingly more common for Hollywood to highlight mental health conditions in films. Because mental illness affects millions of Americans, it’s an extremely relatable theme. Sometimes, these movies show mental illness in a way that is inaccurate or stigmatizing. For those in “the business” who don’t have lived experience, it can be difficult to depict.

However, there are some movies that realistically show what it’s like to experience mental illness. Here’s a list of a few movies that get it right.”

   A Beautiful Mind (2001)

This movie, based on a true story, highlights the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr. (Russel Crow), a mathematical savant who lived with schizophrenia. The movie beautifully captures the challenges John faced throughout his life, including paranoia and delusions that altered his promising career and deeply affected his life. Through the magic of film, viewers can live John’s hallucinations with him, which feel as real to the audience as they did to him.

  Matchstick Men (2003)

Roy (Nicolas Cage) is a con artist working with his protégé to steal a lot of money. While he may be confident in his ability to steal from the rich, he struggles in other aspects of his life. His debilitating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), agoraphobia and panic attacks make it difficult for him to leave his apartment or even open a door. When he discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter, he’s forced to evaluate his career choices and isolated lifestyle. Matchstick Men is an honest depiction of the rituals and behaviors of someone living with OCD.

  It’s Kind Of A Funny Story (2010)

You wouldn’t think a movie set in a mental health hospital could be a comedy. However, this well-crafted film tells the story of 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) who checks himself into a psychiatric ward because of his depression and suicidal ideation. He ends up staying in the adult unit because the youth wing is under renovation. The hospital is not a scary place and the patients are not portrayed as “mad” or “insane”—it’s a safe place where people struggling are getting help, and using humor as a relief from the serious conditions that brought them there. This Hollywood approach to a psychiatric unit may be more comical than any real-life scenario, but it helps to normalize the fact that sometimes people need this level of care.

  Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

After a stay in a mental health hospital, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) is forced to move back in with his parents. His previously untreated symptoms of bipolar disorder caused him to lose both his wife and job, and he is determined to get his wife back. In his efforts, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who offers to help him in exchange for Pat being her ballroom dance partner. Silver Linings Playbook represents the range of emotion that often occurs with bipolar disorder in a real and riveting way.

  The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012)

Socially awkward Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school isolated and anxious. Luckily, he becomes friends with a group of charismatic seniors, including Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller). His friends bring joy to his life, but his inner turmoil reaches a high when they prepare to leave for college. As the film goes on, we learn more about Charlie’s mental health journey—from his stay in a psychiatric hospital to the details of a childhood trauma. This coming-of-age movie does an exemplary job of showing the highs and lows of growing up with mental illness.

  The Skeleton Twins (2014)

The opening scene of Skeleton Twins shows the film’s main characters, Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig), both attempting suicide. Milo’s attempt lands him in the hospital, which reunites the brother and sister after 10 years of estrangement. Both characters express their depression in candid and humorous ways as they learn to accept each other and themselves.

  Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)

Cam (Mark Ruffalo), a father with bipolar disorder, becomes the sole caregiver for his two daughters while his wife (Zoe Saldana) goes away to graduate school. Throughout the movie, Cam faces many challenges that make it difficult for him to take care of his daughters. However, despite the severity of his condition (and some unique parenting methods that accompany it), Cam learns that he is a good father who cares deeply for his family. Infinitely Polar Bear is a very meaningful portrayal of how families can be impacted by mental illness.

  Welcome To Me (2015)

Alice (Kristen Wiig) has just decided to go off her medications for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) when she wins the lottery. She impulsively buys her own talk show with the money, in which she shares her opinions with the world. Although portrayed in a humorous way, Alice shows many of the traits of BPD, including mood swings and unstable relationships. As her behavior pushes away the people closest to her—including her therapist—she starts to take her mental health condition more seriously and works to keep her loved ones in her life. In the process, she falsifies the myth that a person with BPD is selfish.

  Inside Out (2015)

This quirky animation personifies the different emotions inside a young girl’s mind. Characters Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust try to help Riley through her family’s move to San Francisco. The emotions learn to work together to help Riley process the turmoil of adjusting to her new life. Inside Out is a clever, modern and well-made film that puts mental health into a new context.

A Word of Caution

No one should cancel their next therapy appointment to catch a matinée or plan to use cinema therapy as a substitute for professional counseling. Like art, dance, and music therapy, cinema therapy can be a very useful tool when incorporated within a therapeutic process. Movies can also exacerbate some mental conditions. Emotionally charged happenings in movies can occasionally bring up repressed traumatic memories.

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  1. Interesting idea! It’s fascinating how “reel life” can help you understand and cope with “real life”. I sometimes use movies as a talking point to open discussions on sensitive topics that would be hard to get others to engage in otherwise.

    • I saw that in my research, Diane. That’s one way in which movies can help is that counselors can use them to get people to talk about subjects that are pertinent to them but may be hard for them to discuss. I thought the whole topic was incredibly interesting too! 🙂

  2. Fascinating, Debbie. Knowing all this helps me feel less guilty about watching a movie or television series – so that’s beneficial too. 🙂 I’m a sensitive person though so I don’t think horror movies will ever be for me. I do notice that powerful movies stay with me for days afterward, in my mind, my heart, and my body. Great topic!

  3. Great list here of movies on mental health, Debbie. I have found that funny movies are helpful when I’m feeling stressed. I know of friends who would watch TV shows like “I love Lucy” or “Seinfeld” every night to perk them up. The movies with mental health issues are so great because it spreads awareness of the issue.

    • I like comedies too. I find that getting “lost” in a show is relaxing for me – for a little while. I don’t want to spend too much time watching anything. 🙂

    • A Beautiful Mind is one of my favorites. I have not seen Inside Out yet! I need to revisit Titanic with a big bowl of popcorn! 🙂

  4. Rich Wells Reply

    I remember how sometime ago I was going about depression that I thought was not quite right by binging on videos, and beer. After about a month I pulled out of it. Though a month is some serious downtime to be low functioning, I can see now through this posts affirmation how a healthy dose of movie watching can be an enhancement…

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