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Movie Therapy: Using Movies for Mental Health

Therapists recommend movies to help change the way we think and feel.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

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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 psychotic disorders," says Solomon, a professor of psychology at the Community College of Southern Nevada.

In fact, Solomon often lectures at prisons to help inmates learn to use movies as therapy to see what they have done to get them into their current predicament and, hopefully, to learn from it.

Cue up your DVD player because "cinema therapy is something that is self-administered," he says. "That's not to say therapy on a one-to-one basis is bad, but this is an opportunity to do interventional work by yourself."

The idea, says Solomon, 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.

When watching such movies as a form of therapy, he says to look for the therapeutic context such as addiction, death/dying, abandonment or abuse, the ability to reach out and touch the viewer, and the overall content or subject matter.

Many Faces and Forms of Cinema Therapy

But "there's not one definition of cinema therapy," says Oakland, Calif.-based cinema therapist Birgit Wolz, PhD, author of The Cinema Therapy Workbook: A Self-Help Guide to Using Movies for Healing and Growth.

There's "popcorn cinema therapy," which can include watching a movie for a needed emotional release. According to Wolz, popcorn cinema therapy is rather heavy on cinema and rather light on therapy.

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