Counseling Today, Features

Big screen therapy

By Lynne Shallcross October 1, 2011

With a Coke and a tub of buttery popcorn in hand, a comfy seat to lean back in and a larger-than-life screen to take you somewhere new, movies provide a great escape from life. But, helping professionals say, movies can also come in handy in counseling by offering clients a window into their own lives.

Bret Hendricks, an associate professor of counselor education at Texas Tech University, points to the 1980 movie Ordinary People as one of his go-to movies for families in counseling. A past president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of the American Counseling Association, Hendricks says Ordinary People often resonates with families having trouble processing their emotions. “Rather than telling clients they need a ‘feeling language,’ I can let them watch the movie,” Hendricks says. “All of a sudden, they’re seeing things about their own family that they’ve never really looked at before.”

Ordinary People centers around a mother, portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore, closed off to sharing any positive emotions regarding her son. “Her son, who feels responsible for his older brother’s accidental death, desperately needs affirmation from his mother,” Hendricks says. “Instead, she is unapproachable and affectively distant. When her son wants to receive affirmation from her, she responds with an impassive facial expression and cold criticism.”

According to Hendricks, a number of relevant questions emerge from the movie that a counselor could ask clients: What do you think the son needs to hear from his mother? If you were the mother of this son, what would you share with him to encourage him? As you observe this mother, what do you feel? How was your own family similar or different from the family in the movie?

“In order to create a feeling language, a client or family might be given a list of feeling words and describe how these feeling words might be integrated into the movie family’s experience,” Hendricks says. “For example, they could be asked to stop the movie while watching it and describe what the family members are feeling at these points. Then, you could ask them to describe times in their own history when their families experienced similar things and, using the feeling word list, describe the feelings that they felt at these times. Thus, you have helped the individual or family develop a feeling language using the movie as the catalyst.”

Using movies in counseling, also known as cinematherapy, isn’t just for families; movies can be just as helpful with individuals in counseling, says Hendricks, who also works in private practice in Lubbock. “We always want to use interventions that are as close to what people normally use for their own therapeutic interventions,” he says. “Many times, people go to the movies to be entertained and to look at life in a different way. It’s a venue that people are already using in a therapeutic way, many times without even realizing it.”

Counselors should incorporate things that people already use or do in their everyday lives into therapy, Hendricks says, in part because this increases their comfort level. That’s why movies can be so appropriate as a tool in counseling. “It’s difficult to reach someone and really be effective through counseling sessions for one 50-minute session a week,” he says. “So we need as many adjunct things as possible, and it’s not hard to get people to watch a movie. It’s something that you can use to extend your therapy.”

A different perspective

Cinematherapy involves requesting clients to watch movies or movie clips with themes or situations similar to those the counselor and client are working on, with the purpose of discussing the movie themes in session, says Mary Ballard, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development at Southeastern Louisiana University. Using movies in counseling can be time intensive, Ballard says, because counselors must screen the movies beforehand to determine which ones might be a good fit for their clients.

But the payoff can be significant as well, Hendricks says. Instead of simply talking about their issues with a counselor, when clients watch a movie, they process the issues and emotions affectively, he says. For instance, Hendricks might ask a client struggling with an addiction to watch Changing Lanes. In the movie, one of the main characters is in recovery but is still exhibiting many of the behaviors associated with addictions, including rationalization and thinking about drinking. “The character calls his sponsor, and the sponsor tells him something to the effect of even though you’re working the 12-step program, you’re really still a drunk,” Hendricks says. “What it does is help the client to identify with the character. Rather than looking at it through the filter of denial that they have a problem, they’re really living through the character [and] identifying with the struggles he’s dealing with.” That scene gives addicted clients an opportunity to see themselves, Hendricks says, and might ease them into working with the counselor on some of their issues surrounding denial.

Clients often gain a much deeper perspective on their personal issues by observing how the characters in a movie are affected by or attempt to handle similar issues, Hendricks says. When clients watch movies, he says, they’re “not processing it in their head; they’re processing it in their heart.”

Ballard says that, generally, clients are better able to begin talking with a counselor about a movie character’s struggles than about their own issues, even if those issues mirror each other. “[With movies], clients get to view others experiencing similar problems and situations,” says Ballard, who is also a past president of IAMFC. “This takes them out of the line of fire and lowers their defensiveness, making them much more likely to open up and discuss alternative ways of being. It’s always easier to see what’s wrong with others.”

It can be difficult for clients to talk about themselves and the role they play in the problems in their relationships, Ballard says, but when they watch the same issues occurring in the lives of others, it’s sometimes easier to recognize and discuss. “In other words, it’s not threatening at all for me to talk about a woman who makes one bad decision after another and keeps ending up in the same depressed state time and time again,” Ballard says. “I may talk at length about how she doesn’t seem to care enough about herself to stay away from people who continually choose to mistreat her. Or I may talk about a mother who is clearly obsessed with living her unfulfilled life through her daughter. Similarly, families may laugh and joke about a dysfunctional movie family that continues to meddle in each other’s lives, absent of any healthy boundaries. Once clients have discussed movie themes, the counselor may have them talk about how they are similar to or different from the movie characters.”

Watching someone else’s issues in a movie can make all the difference for clients, Ballard says. “It’s all about backseat driving. It’s much easier to see and understand the problems that others are having than to recognize some of the same issues in your own [life]. Distance creates perspective. Movies provide that distance. Counselors can then bridge this distance through the use of interventions that fit their own personal counseling style.”

When people get “stuck,” Hendricks says, it’s often because they’re too close to the issue to see it clearly or because they’ve developed resistance or denial. Movies help clients externalize the issues with which they’re struggling rather than holding those issues internally and remaining unaware or in denial about them, he says. Movies also allow clients to look at their issues from a more objective viewpoint. “Then the client can come to an innate level of awareness of the issue by watching the movie rather than the counselor hammering it home,” Hendricks says. “To me, that’s a much deeper level of awareness.”

A common element of family struggles is being too close to a situation to recognize that an issue exists, Hendricks says. Movies can help families externalize what they’re a part of, he says. “If a family is unaccepting and critical of one another, a film such as The Blind Side might be used to illustrate a system that is accepting and supportive,” he says. “Instead of the therapist pointing out to a family that they are not accepting of one another, which may lead the clients to have feelings of defensiveness, the family will instead [watch the movie and] identify their communication issues from their own viewpoint. When they do this, they are accepting responsibility for their own actions. Thus, the clients’ defensiveness is reduced and they have a much more authentic and less threatening counseling experience.”

I’m not alone

A wide variety of clients can benefit from cinematherapy, but Ballard says families experiencing difficulty transitioning from one stage of development to another in the family life cycle make especially good candidates. “Certain developmental tasks are associated with each stage of development,” Ballard says, “but when couples and/or families fail to accomplish these tasks, they can become ‘stuck’ and unable to move to the next stage, which can create heightened stress reactions and an inability to successfully communicate. For example, a parent who becomes stagnant in [Erik] Erikson’s ‘generativity versus stagnation’ stage may be unable to separate and differentiate from teenage children, thus prolonging the launching stage of the family life cycle and delaying the middle-aged stage. This could potentially delay the social and emotional development of the young adult child and postpone the parent’s experience of the empty nest, which is paramount to the middle-aged stage.”

Ballard says the best movie she’s seen addressing this family situation of late is Toy Story 3. “The entire movie builds toward the main character leaving home to attend college,” she says. “It is sure to arouse powerful emotions for any parent or teenager approaching this stage of family development.”

it’s safer for them to come around to how it might resonate in their own lives.”

Cinematherapy also provides an alternative way for counselors to address topics that are difficult to approach, Hendricks says, such as internalized homophobia or racism. For example, a counselor might assign parents whose child is coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender a movie with LGBT themes to see what feelings the film stirs. Hendricks is excited about the recent release The Help because of the opportunities it will open to discuss internalized racism or persecution with clients.

No matter the client, Hendricks says, cinematherapy can also instill a sense of hope and optimism. Movies often have happy endings, he points out, and even if a character does something with which a client disagrees, the counselor can ask the client what he or she would do differently to secure a different outcome. “It might give the client hope that it could turn out differently for him or her,” Hendricks says.

Movies can also generate a feeling of universality, Hendricks says. “We all experience the same emotions. It’s the feeling of, ‘Wow, this person on the screen is feeling the same thing that I felt and I’m not alone. I’m not the only person who ever felt this.’ That in itself gives a sense of hope.”

The potential is also there for a client to become emotionally connected to the story line in a movie, Hendricks says, and that emotional connection can transfer into stronger motivation for change.

Ballard agrees that cinematherapy can be motivating. “Movies give clients the opportunity to see others with similar problems, even if only metaphorically presented, using different thoughts and behaviors to work through their problems,” she says. “This, in essence, models for clients alternative ways of being and oftentimes motivates them to pursue their own solutions.”

Delving in

Counselors interested in integrating cinematherapy into their work should first seek training, Hendricks says. Workshops and books on the topic are available, he says, and counselors might also consider joining the Association for Creativity in Counseling, a division of ACA.

Both a love of movies and the willingness to invest the time and energy to screen movies for potential use with clients are necessary, Ballard advises. In addition, counselors must take care in determining if cinematherapy is an appropriate match for clients, whether individuals, couples or families. Clients who have experienced recent trauma, couples with a history of violence, clients who are mentally ill or those who cannot distinguish fact from fiction are not good candidates for cinematherapy, Ballard says. “Counselors need to be mindful of inappropriate language, sexual content and violence level when assigning movies, especially if young children will be participating,” she says. “Religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds should always be assessed to avoid assigning movies with offensive content.”

In addition, Ballard says counselors should never assign a movie that might evoke strong emotions without first preparing clients. “For example, movies with themes of death and dying can be very therapeutic but also very difficult for clients to view,” she says. Ballard also encourages counselors to build their own DVD libraries because clients are more likely to watch a movie for homework if the counselor provides them with the film.

From a practical standpoint, Hendricks recommends allowing clients enough time to process the movie. “Don’t rush clients in their processing,” he says. “You might want to get through all the questions in one session, but it might take the client a few sessions. You need to follow the client’s lead.”

If counselors prepare carefully, movies can add significantly to the effectiveness of therapy, say Hendricks and Ballard. Case in point: In a recent discussion Ballard led with a group of children ages 10 to 12, the conversation turned to the new movie The Smurfs. “When I asked what if any lesson was learned from the movie, many of them replied with themes of always be yourself, follow your heart and don’t let others change your mind when you know you’re right,” she says. “I’d say those are some pretty powerful lessons.”

 

****

Movies for Addicted Youth

Bret Hendricks, an associate professor of counselor education at Texas Tech University, has done extensive work with adolescents in the juvenile justice system who are dealing with addictions. Through the use of movies and movie clips, he believes his clients have made significantly greater progress than they would have with talk therapy alone. After watching relevant movies, some of Hendricks’ adolescent clients have expressed a desire to reach out to their families, those they have victimized or even their probation officers. Hendricks shares a few of his favorite movies to use with addicted adolescents and the reasons why he likes those movies:

  • 28 Days: An excellent film illustrating treatment and recovery.
  • My Name Is Bill W.: A film about the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Stand and Deliver: Excellent for promoting self-awareness and self-concept.
  • Drumline: Great film about self-concept and reaching one’s potential.
  • Clean and Sober: Another film that illustrates recovery and treatment.
  • The Wizard of Oz: Great for addictions. What journey did Dorothy have to experience to come to realizations about her own life

— Lynne Shallcross

****

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

2 Comments

  1. Mark Swart

    I really appreciated this article.
    I agree that movies can provide a bridge – perhaps they can also increase the level of cognitive engagement and change in the therapeutic relationship?
    It was unfortunate that the first line/headline of the article refers to drinking coke – in the context of evoking a relaxing therapeutic environment…Caffeine also can exacerbate anxiety issues. I also work with public health and diabetes is a huge issue – also as we head towards more integration of mental health and primary care we’ll all need to think about how we advocate for the overall health of our clients.

    Reply
  2. Christie Bates

    Thanks for the suggestions!
    My current favorite: I use Disney’s “The Kid” with adult patients in addiction treatment to help them identify the stage of change they are in, to introduce the “inner child” concept, and to help them connect emotionally to the definition of recovery as “regaining something that was lost or stolen.”
    Of course, for teaching family roles in addiction, no movie more fun or powerful than “Stuart Saves His Family.”
    :)

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *