Cinema therapy: can movies help us process grief or get over a breakup?

Watching films can help us address personal problems from a distance and learn the skills that characters use to resolve their conflicts

Emotional young woman
Watching films can help us address personal problems from a distance and learn the skills that characters use to resolve their conflicts10'000 Hours (Getty Images)
Isabel Rubio

On his first day of therapy, a patient told psychologist Ana Fernández that after watching the movie Shame he had realized that he had a sex addiction. Another decided to treat his obsessive-compulsive disorder after watching comedy about the subject. Characters on screen are often faced with the same situations or problems as people in real life. Experiences like these have led to scientific research into whether movies can help treat a disorder, process grief, overcome a breakup, or deal with betrayal by a family member or friend.

Cinema therapy is the use of movies, scenes, or short films as a support tool for psychological therapy. This is how Fernández, who is coordinator of the psychology and audiovisual and performing arts working group at the Official College of Psychology in Madrid, explains it: “Movies act as metaphors for life, just like stories, novels, or theater shows. But movies have a greater emotional impact, since they use lots of technical resources to capture the viewer’s imagination in a very powerful way.” She is referring to the sound, music, dialogue, natural landscapes, close-ups, and even special effects used in movies.

The emotions aroused by movies can help the therapist and the patient to reflect together and make analogies about the characters’ decisions, emotions, personality, or ways of relating to others. With someone trying to process grief, Fernández would talk about movies like Manchester by the Sea, Ordinary People or Departures. While Marriage Story would be an alternative for someone trying to get over a breakup, Secrets and Lies would be an alternative for someone facing betrayal or Vidas cruzadas, for those who feel alone. With a victim of bullying, the psychologist would use Cowards or El país del miedo. And with someone who suffers gender violence, I would try Take My Eyes or the short film La loca y el feminista.

A review published in Frontiers in Psychology says that cinema therapy can have a positive effect on patients’ well-being and help them cope with life’s challenges. “When the technique is properly applied and the patient can identify with a specific movie character, they can talk about about their life and their situation in the third person without exposing themselves,” says Elena Sacilotto, one of the study’s authors. The doctor of psychology at the University of Pavia (Italy) states that the patient can learn skills from the characters, and be inspired by their own situation, by discussing the movie with a professional who can guide them.

There are psychologists who use movie therapy as a complementary tool to address a wide variety of problems: “From disorders such as anorexia to existential anguish caused by relationship problems or the suffering experienced by children whose parents are getting divorced.” Jenny Hamilton, senior lecturer in counseling and psychological therapy at the University of Lincoln (UK), says research on cinema therapy shows a range of benefits. For example, “it can be used as a tool to reduce anxiety and to make therapy more attractive.”

The use of movies in group psychotherapy sessions can encourage hospitalized psychiatric patients to talk about their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings while discussing the characters and stories. Furthermore, young people with autism can identify their own positive strengths and develop resilience from watching others on big screen, according to research published in Counselling and Psychotherapy Research. Some studies explore the potential of movie therapy to reduce parent–teen conflict in school counseling or to help young people diagnosed with schizophrenia reconceptualize their stories and imagine new opportunities by using superhero movies.

The limitations of Cinema therapy

Although there is a substantial amount of research that support the effectiveness of movie therapy, the technique has not yet reached an optimal level of standardization, according to Sacilotto. The expert highlights that many of the published studies are based on qualitative analysis, which limits a more general application of their results and makes comparison between different research difficult. The review published in Frontiers in Psychology concludes that a more standardized methodological approach is needed to accurately measure the effectiveness of these techniques and, thus, be able to encourage their clinical use.

“We need to be careful as mental health is complex and differs from person to person,” says Agata Lulkowska, who is a senior lecturer in Film Directing and Production at Staffordshire University (UK). The expert indicates that movie therapy can help patients improve their mood, inspire them to face some problems, and alleviate feelings of loneliness by identifying with characters who might have experienced similar challenges in life. Still, she points out that it cannot be used as the only way to deal with a problem and that not enough studies have been done to understand the long-term effect.

Furthermore, cinema therapy is not useful for everyone, the experts say. “I don’t think there is anything that works for everyone,” says Fernández. The psychologist considers that there may be some people who watch films as a means of escapism and who do not delve any deeper into them. Others may “reject topics that do not fit their basic ideas or only stick with what confirms their opinions.”

Is it enough to simply watch a movie to get some kind of mental health benefit, or do you have to talk about it, do some exercise, or go to therapy with a professional? “It depends a lot on what you need,” says Lulkowska. The stories told on the screen can evoke a wide range of emotions: from laughter, sadness, fear, or compassion to a sense of relief. “Even negative emotions such as fear or sadness can be transformative by providing a sense of catharsis once the emotion has been processed,” the specialist adds.

There are many pages on the internet that organize movies by psychological themes. Anyone can access them and draw their own conclusions. But, as Fernández states, “if what you are looking for is to face specific psychological problems or do some personal development work, you need the help of a professional to choose the scenes and the work to be done with them.”

A complement to psychological help

Lulkowska takes a position along the same lines, highlighting that watching a good movie and talking to friends about it can lift the mood a little. But she insists that serious illnesses that require medication and various therapies are a completely different matter: “In the latter case, doing so under the supervision of a doctor or psychologist is recommended.”

A psychologist would suggest some exercises to the patient. You could, for example, ask them about their favorite characters and qualities that they value most in them; or, on the other hand, you could ask about those that they dislike or reject and why. This is mentioned by Ana Fernández, who points out that “different forms of communication between characters can also be analyzed to stimulate a better way of relating to our partner or friends.” Another exercise would consist of analyzing the sequences in which the viewer became emotional, in addition to identifying the emotion and what produced it. “On many occasions, it is the patients themselves who comment that a film moved them or made them think about something that they brought to therapy or that something we are working on reminds them of a character. There we would have a clear stimulus to use cinema effectively based on our own impressions,” adds this psychologist.

Another alternative that Fernández puts forward is psychological cineforums. In these, the public hold discussions based on movies that address psychological topics of common interest. In collaboration with the Film Academy, the Official College of Psychology of Madrid organizes sessions under the title “Cinema as a mirror and model of our life.” In them, we reflect on movies like Mighty Flash. In the film, Isa talks to herself by recording messages for herself for when she disappears or loses her memory, Cita feels trapped in a marriage in a house full of religious images of saints and virgins, and María returns to the town where she was born to face her loneliness. These three women all have a deep desire for liberating experiences that will allow them to get back in touch with the places where they were happy or dreamed of being happy.

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