Cinema Therapy, class is in session

29 May

So I can’t decide if this will be a semi-regular post series or just a one off but I wanted to talk about a tool I use in my work. As most followers of this site know, I work in mental health. What you may not be aware of is that I work with incarcerated men. A very interesting, and notoriously difficult, population.

Once I realized how my nerdy interest in super heroes could help me in my work with adolescent boys, I figured that it was worth a try to get a buy-in from the adults. And it worked. So I gained a bit of a rep and I’m the one the guys run up to when they want to talk comics or movies or what have you. Not only do I work with individuals but I also run therapeutic groups- more like psychoeducation groups but still, we have some awesome discussions. When I was finally at a point where I could create my own groups I decided to run “Cinema Therapy” groups.

Now I know, you’re thinking about how I could show that movies can be therapeutic and let me tell you they most definitely can be. First of all, they can help people connect to their own emotions. They can help people see themselves in the characters and thus see perspectives that they may have been discounting. And they can help people gain deeper understanding of issues, and themselves, through examples. There is a lot more deep discussion we could have on this topic, but one thing that is important is that it works. It’s actually an empirically validated technique. Which helped me out when I suggested creating the groups.

So not only do we sit around watching movies, but I also push my guys to talk about them. And the topics of discussion vary- we could talk about the emotions that were evoked for them, or the theme of the film, or even how our current society connects to the story. We could talk about characters and any issues they have (and what clues the guys had about those issues). We might even talk about the music. At some point in the discussion, I try to get the guys to relate to the film- especially with the films that I start the courses with (usually a superhero movie…).

The one thing I would change is that I only get them for 1 hour, which could be a lot less depending on situations, so it can take 3 or 4 weeks to finish a film. And I always have to get the group to recap the previous week before we can start- just to make sure they all know what is going on. This is actually pretty interesting because it can tell a lot about what in the film struck that speaker the most the previous session.

Needless to say, I love these groups and am excited to run them every week.

I wanted to share some of the films we’ve used and some of what has been discussed…

  • Superman Returns. I think I talked about this a little in a post from the end of 2017 when I had a chance to talk to Brandon Routh about this. Definitely not my favorite Superman film, but it has some interesting parts. One thing that the group brought up when we were discussing it was the similarities between themselves and the Superman of this film. Superman has been away for several years at the start of the movie. Someone else is with his lady friend. Someone else is raising his kid (spoiler, sorry). The world went on without him. This was so close to what a lot of the guys go through, the group was silent for a few as they took it in. I will never forget that. Then the discussion moved to more common topics like, what gives Superman the right to play judge and jury?


  • To Kill a Mockingbird. We actually just finished this one recently and it was so poignant how similar parts of the story are to our current world. Everyone in the group decided that things would have occurred similarly, today.


  • We Bought a Zoo. This one has a focus on grief and learning to move forward with lives. The guys initially gravitate to it because of the animals and Scarlet Johansson, but by the end I’ve seen more than a few guys cry over the family building a life after their loss. Discussion here usually focuses on the father and son dynamic, specifically asking what they could do in their own relationships with their sons (or fathers) to help repair them.


  • Iron Man 3. This is an easy one because it takes place after The Avengers and Tony Stark has pretty serious PTSD issues throughout the film. We focus on those traits and the group has to identify symptoms as well as coping methods Tony uses. Many of which are not things the guys could utilize (not being fictional billionaire geniuses…) but still, being able to recognize the use of different tools is important. This is actually one of the films I generally start the course with because the guys are so ingrained to believe that only old, dramatic, and boring films can teach them anything.


  • Ordinary People. This one is obvious, too. The plot is an ordinary family dealing with the aftermath of the loss of one son and the attempted suicide of the other when he couldn’t deal with his grief. It is such a simple film, but powerful. Here we discuss what makes this family unique. The answer being… nothing. It’s an ordinary, everyday family. But how they deal with their own mental health issues, and that of the rest of the family, impacts their unit quite a bit. Nothing overly traumatic (or even dramatic) happens within the film itself… it’s just a powerful story of learning to live again, learning to feel, and moving through life.


  • Life of Pi. This is more of what people think of when they initially think of Cinema being used therapeutically… in this film, the narrator tells the tale, using animals in place of real people because it is easier to process the events of the story for him if he sees them that way. The guys connect to this because for some of their traumas, it would be easier to talk about them in this kind of manner. His reasoning for doing so and what the impact is on the story is usually a focus of our discussions.


  • A Beautiful Mind. I am sure no one believes this to be true, but there is a high percentage of individuals with schizophrenia diagnoses locked up. While watching this film, the guys tend to debate the hallucinations- many not catching on until the end of the movie, while others know right away who is real and who is not. Sometimes it backfires as they start to think that some of the real characters are hallucinations, too. They often discuss the symptoms shown and the therapeutic techniques- especially “electro shock therapy” and Insulin Shock Therapy (which is so old school, I wasn’t even familiar with it!). They also demand to know what happened after the end of the movie. Unfortunately, since the Nash’s passed away in 2015, I have to tell the group that information as well as that their son has both his father’s genius and his demons.


  • Man of Steel. Lord, how I hate this movie. I tend to work on other things during it, but the guys love it- they love action movies. However, this film has great examples of Superman/Clark learning moral and ethics lessons, and applying what he learned to his actions. This is an interesting topic with incarcerated individuals, especially if you can get them discussing their own morals, ethics, and values and where they learned them- they do and do not match what I was taught. Which can lead to discussion on thinking patterns and core beliefs- all excellent mental health tools.


  • Arrow. I actually use this with my caseload when we meet in a group because a) they get excited to watch something, b) they get excited for a super hero, and c) I have a list of questions for every episode that forces them to have paid attention to mental health issues, relationship problems, and other significant issues that might be presented. While watching the first season (we are just starting season 2), the guys had regular debates about the Oliver-Tommy-Laurel relationship, especially when the cat was out of the bag- they started discussing whether it was appropriate for Tommy and Laurel to have been together while Oliver was “dead”, relating it to their own situations. Some of the stories they shared of past relationships… wow. Then whenever the relationship changed in some way, they debated whether it was a good change or a bad one and how it would impact their hero’s future. They also get really excited when they catch on to something before it is revealed- like how serious Thea’s drug use was (can’t wait for them to catch on to Laurel in season 2).


  • E.T. We focus on the music with this film. How does the music evoke emotion? What kind of emotions do we feel watching it? And what is the relationship between E.T. and Elliott? This is a personal favorite film of mine, so it is always interesting to see who has seen it before (a surprising number have not!) and fun to watch big, tough guys get teary…

I have a small library, which we hope to grow, of films to choose from but as you can guess I try to keep a varied collection. I also allow the group to vote on titles at the beginning of the course, which allows them to have some control of their curriculum. This is my absolute favorite group to teach because of the buy-in from the guys. They get something they like (movies) and they have a say in which films (having control over anything doesn’t happen a lot while incarcerated) and they just have to talk about them a little at the end of every session.

What titles would you recommend for the group? I am always looking for new material (PG-13 and below only, please).

(additional information collected by researcher, Barbara)

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: