Watching Movies for Your Mental Health: Cinematherapy

· November 2, 2018
Have you ever approached a situation differently as the result of a film? Movies can be great for your mental health.

Has watching a movie ever changed the way you look at a problem? Have you ever approached a situation differently or been able to take a step back from something going on in your life due to a movie? Watching movies for your mental health is a great tool. That’s why many health professionals are turning to cinematherapy to complement their work with patients.

Watching movies allows the viewers (or the patients, in this case) to take in some very different information. When you watch a movie, you immerse yourself in a linguistic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, and intrapsychic experience. In other words, “cinematherapy”, as it’s commonly referred to, can make psychological treatment a space for holistic and intersensorial learning.

Watching movies for your mental health has many benefits.

Inspired by bibliotherapy

Bruce Skalarew, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and co-president of the Forum for Psychoanalytic Study of Film, believes that cinematherapy has followed the same course as bibliotherapy. As the name suggests, bibliotherapy is the use of books and reading in clinical practice. Dr. Skalarew believes that cinema is a tool that can improve mental health.

A woman watching movies for her mental health.

Birgit Walz offers an explanation as to why therapists might want to use movies as part of therapy. She says that the images, music, tone, characters, settings, and theatrical elements support the psychologist’s work. What’s more, movies have the power of facilitating self-awareness and emotional release. Walz believes that movies can help change our habits and help us evolve.

“Cinematherapy can be a powerful catalyst for healing and growth for anybody who is open to learning how movies affect us and to watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

-Birgit Walz-


Personal reflection

What would I do if something like this happened to me? How would my partner react if this terrible thing happened to us? Movies have the power of making us imagine ourselves in situations that we would be otherwise incapable of contemplating.

When you watch a movie, you often put yourself in the main character’s shoes. You try to think or see through their eyes. For someone who’s in therapy, this practice helps with introspection. By getting outside of themselves, they may be able to better understand their present and future thoughts and feelings.

How to use movies for your mental health

Gary Solomon was one of the first psychologists to discuss the use of movies as therapy. He says the first step is to choose movies or short films that reflect the patient’s problem. In other words, the plot needs to be as similar as possible to the patient’s current situation. 

The patient and therapist have to have a discussion prior to watching the movie. Both parties need to be aware that they’ll be consciously analyzing the movie as they watch it. That way, the therapist can recognize and examine the patient’s reactions.

“Dream as if you will live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”

-James Dean-

After watching the movie, the patient should explain the connections and similarities that they see between the movie and their life. The therapist should encourage them to use their imagination. It’s helpful for them to identify with one or more characters in the film (Berg-Cross, Jennings, and Baruch, 1990).

Therapist using cinematherapy or watching movies for your mental health.

Empathy and a new perspective

This technique has several unique benefits. One of them is its ability to improve patients’ social skills and communication. Movies show patients situations that require empathy. As a result, they can make patients aware of their own feels and desires.

Films also help patients put the theory of mind into practice. The theory of mind is the ability to understand your own emotional processes. Not only that, but to understand and reflect on other people’s thoughts and feelings. You can achieve all of this while enjoying beautiful images and witty dialogue. That’s the magic of movies!

The conflicts that we observe in criminal characters help us solidify our own moral values.

What’s more, this technique helps by offering concrete situations. They help the patient really focus on the issue at hand. They can also analyze the characters in a very methodical way. The viewer can appreciate each change and detail.

Metaphors are key when using movies for your mental health as therapeutic tools.

Cinematherapy is still not very well-known. Nevertheless, more psychologists are using it nowadays as part of their therapy strategy. However, it’s important not to use it with patients who have psychotic disorders. In those cases, there’s no guarantee that cinematherapy will offer any benefits.