Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Counseling goes to the movies

By Bethany Bray December 5, 2014

Watching a movie — whether at home curled up on the couch or at the theater with a tub of popcorn — is a great way to relax and check out from reality for two hours.

Movies can also be a hit-the-nail-on-the-head portrayal of life, including mental health struggles and Movie Tickets and Popcornrelationship problems that counselors hear about on a daily basis.

We asked counselors to tell us about their favorite movie portrayals of counseling or mental health themes — either movies they simply like to watch themselves or films that they have recommended for clients.

From Silver Linings Playbook to Terms of Endearment, their responses show how art – in this case, film – can truly imitate life.

 

(* Indicates an American Counseling Association member. Responses have been edited for length.)

 

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Antwone Fisher (2002)

Submitted by Feliesha Shelton-Wheeler*, a mental health staff therapist at Gannon University’s Health and Counseling Services in Erie, Pennsylvania, with a Psy.D. in clinical psychology

 

Antwone Fisher is one of my favorite films. The 2002 movie is based on the New York Times best-selling book Finding Fish: A Memoir, by and about the author and namesake of the film, Antwone Quenton Fisher.

The movie, directed by Denzel Washington, one of the stars of the film, tells the true story of an African American man’s journey of resilience and movement toward self-awareness. Viewers get a glimpse of Antwone’s (portrayed by actor Derek Luke) struggle to overcome a turbulent life that we learn began the day he was born in prison and placed in foster care. The movie begins with a recurring dream that foreshadows the movie’s ending. We learn that Antwone is in the Navy and, due to several angry outbursts and physical fights, he is mandated to attend therapy with a psychiatrist, Dr. Davenport (Denzel Washington). In the three limited sessions he has with Dr. Davenport, Antwone reveals the painful hardships he has endured in his life.

The content within the counseling sessions between Dr. Davenport and Antwone contain several real-life counseling/mental health themes, including repressed emotions, sexual abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), neglect and abandonment, issues of self-worth and identity, interpersonal relationships and death/grief and loss.

It is not often as therapists that we have the opportunity to witness the transformation of a client. Through the magic of film, the movie allows us to witness Antwone’s transformation in just a few hours.

The movie is definitely a tearjerker, but there are plenty of moments of humor and hope that counter the sadness.

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What About Bob? (1991)

Submitted by April R. Crable*, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Virginia and Florida, and field experience coordinator and core faculty member at Walden University

 

I first watched What About Bob? as a teenager. At that time, the thought of becoming a counselor had never crossed my mind, and I enjoyed the movie for what it was: a comedy. I remember thinking that Bill Murray’s role as Bob Wiley was hilarious and annoying, and I felt sorry for Richard Dreyfuss’ character of Dr. Leo Marvin. As a counselor, I can now appreciate the lessons in this movie. What About Bob? contains several helpful teaching moments for both senior and novice clinicians. As a faculty supervisor, I often show clips of this movie to my students to show them the importance of being mindful of our purpose, that we are humans and that there is no such thing as a perfect counselor.

In the movie, we find Dr. Leo Marvin at a point in his career where he seems to be focused on becoming a “renowned therapist” with a slight ego. His ego is the reason he accepted the referral for Bob in the first place, even though it was right before he was going away on a monthlong vacation and he did not do his due diligence in researching the needs of Bob. Dr. Marvin soon abandons Bob and asks him to read his book Baby Steps while he is away.

Throughout the movie, Bob tries various ways to reach Dr. Marvin during his vacation, such as pretending that he is going to kill himself. Dr. Marvin receives a call that Bob completed suicide. Dr. Marvin shares this with his wife — without a second thought about his own feelings of losing a client or about the client. He says, “Oh well, let’s not let it ruin our vacation.”

The lesson learned is that it is easy to become emotionally numb when we are wrapped up in our own lives or after years of practice. If you have seen the movie, you know that Bob continues to infringe on Dr. Marvin’s vacation and family, and while Dr. Marvin continues to try to get rid of Bob before his interview with Good Morning America, Bob eventually wins over Dr. Marvin’s family members and turns his own family against him.

Dr. Marvin eventually loses it to the point where he is hospitalized and tries to kill Bob with a bomb attached to his body. He convinces Bob that this is “death therapy.” At this point, Dr. Marvin does a little kick of joy because he believes he is finally free of Bob.

Haven’t we all experienced this level of frustration with a client? We may not have thought about using death therapy, but we may find ourselves feeling happy if they miss an appointment or take a little vacation from therapy.

Most of my students gain insight midway through the movie. They see that Dr. Marvin spends most of the movie attempting to get rid of Bob without taking time to consider the reason that he needs his help. We may sometimes forget to listen to a client and get wrapped up in our own agenda. We are often the cause of our own frustration and burnout. At the end of the story, Dr. Marvin is shown in a psychiatric facility in a wheelchair, unable to speak.

This is an awesome reminder that we all need a break sometimes. I no longer feel sorry for Dr. Marvin as I once did as a teenager. From a counselor’s perspective, I can honestly say that I identify and empathize with him. At some point, we have all felt a little stressed, frustrated and off our game. After all, there is no such thing as a perfect counselor.

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Ordinary People (1980)

Submitted by Andrea Rohr*, a certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC) who works at an opioid treatment facility in Jamaica, Queens, New York

 

Ordinary People explores the fragmentation a family experiences after the loss of a teenage son. The surviving teenage son, Conrad, has developed survivor’s guilt and posttraumatic stress as a result of the boating accident that killed his older brother. Conrad has recently returned home from a psychiatric hospital following an attempted suicide. Albeit a reticent participant in therapy, Conrad starts seeing Dr. Berger in the hopes of getting better.

In therapy, progress for Conrad is slow and his family tensions continue to escalate. Buck is revealed to have been his mother’s favored son, and he, rather than Conrad, died in the boating mishap. In the hope of offering some insight into the family, Conrad’s father pays Dr. Berger a visit. Forthcoming in expressing his feelings, Conrad’s dad realizes during his session that he’s really there to explore his own feelings. The family unit remains fractured, however, since Conrad’s remote mother abhors therapy, deflects any discussion of feelings and eventually leaves the family.

During one scene in the movie, Conrad seeks out his friend Karen, whom he knew at the psychiatric hospital. Karen assures Conrad she’s all right and is no longer pursuing therapy. She explains she saw a therapist when released from the hospital but quit after her dad said no one could make her better other than herself. The movie crescendos when Conrad later discovers Karen killed herself. That Dr. Berger agrees to see Conrad – after a desperate call late on a cold winter’s night – is a tribute to the commitment of Conrad’s therapist and a discernment of desperation. It is during this heated late-night session that Conrad experiences the epiphany: He held on. Conrad held on to the boat and survived; Buck could not – and died.

Ordinary People is an intense drama with a settled – if not happy – conclusion for its players. The movie implies therapy works. Those who seek treatment make progress and move forward. Those who avoid treatment have less successful – sometimes even suicidal – outcomes.

 

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Canvas (2006)

Submitted by Dominick Carielli*, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) who has worked for the Calandra Institute, Queens College, New York, for the past 30 years

 

A number of films deal with counseling and mental illness, and most people will immediately think of A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting. Less well known, though no less riveting and powerful, is Canvas, a 2006 film that chronicles one woman’s battle with schizophrenia and the impact it has on her husband and young son.

There are many things that I love about Canvas. It is a film about real, ordinary human beings who are struggling with the everyday aspects of life while trying to cope with something profound and potentially devastating and destructive. It is also about family and relationships. In counseling, most of us focus on treating individuals. It can be easy to lose sight of how a mental illness can dramatically impact the lives of those who are close to the client.

Particularly salient is the effect of the mother’s illness on her 10-year-old son. While in the beginning stages of forging his own identity and establishing relationships with peers, he is thrust into a world of chaos. He loves his mother but is at the same time angry with her, ashamed of her and has those frightening moments where he wonders if he might become like her.

The film also closely examines the relationship between father and son as well as the symbolic loss of a person that can occur with diseases like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia; the individual they once were no longer exists. Canvas stirs us, warms us, challenges us and educates us.

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Submitted by Cristina Ciobanu*, who is studying counseling and development/clinical mental health at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas

 

In the 2012 movie Silver Linings Playbook, a [person with a] mental health condition interacting with another doesn’t always equal disaster. Sometimes, it might just equal healing. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is a recovering bipolar disorder patient who formerly snapped at the sight of his wife cheating on him with a colleague. Tiffany (Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence) is a widow who engages in a medley of sexual behaviors at work in order to deal with the loss of her husband.

What happens next is a hilarious alloy of confusion, unexpected turns and miraculous discoveries. Tiffany’s blunt but humane sincerity pulls Pat out of his obsession to continue a marriage that doesn’t exist anymore, while Pat gives Tiffany back an old dream by being her partner in a dance competition. The two eventually dance their way into a renewed vision of life.

Despite skepticism of the story’s feasibility, the take-home message is that hope, courage and faith in the process of life can be great pillars in promoting mental health recovery. Beyond that, they can bring more authenticity to our lives and show that the human experience is no easy endeavor, therefore removing the stigma still present in the world of mental health today.

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Terms of Endearment (1983)

Submitted by Feliesha Shelton-Wheeler*, a mental health staff therapist at Gannon University’s Health and Counseling Services in Erie, Pennsylvania, with a Psy.D. in clinical psychology

 

Although this movie is extremely sad, Terms of Endearment is one of my favorite films. (I can actually recite some of the lines from the script because I’ve watched it so many times!) The movie focuses on the enmeshed relationship between a mother, Aurora (played by Shirley MacLaine), and daughter, Emma (played by Debra Winger). In the beginning of the movie, viewers get to witness the humorous yet telling signs of Aurora’s anxious and obsessive behaviors as she climbs into Emma’s crib (when Emma is a baby) and shakes her awake to make sure she has not died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The film takes us on a journey through Emma’s marital struggles and family choices that Aurora observes with great criticism and disapproval. Despite her constant nitpicking and tiring criticism of Emma’s choices, Aurora quickly wins the hearts of viewers as she painfully has to endure watching Emma struggle with a terminal diagnosis of cancer.

Along with parent-child enmeshment, Terms of Endearment contains other real-life counseling/mental health themes such as empty nest syndrome, grief and loss/death, and terminal illness.

There are several funny parts within the movie that help to balance the film’s overwhelmingly sad events. Viewers will likely enjoy Aurora’s date with her next door neighbor, the astronaut Garrett Breedlove (played by Jack Nicholson) or Aurora’s preference of having her oldest grandchild call her “Mrs. Greenway” instead of “grandmother” because she is not ready to be one.

 

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Free Fall (2013)

Submitted by Michael L. Rockel*, an LMHC in Massachusetts who specializes in solution-focused brief therapy; he is also a national certified counselor (NCC) and certified clinical mental health counselor (CCMHC)

 

Truth as defined by Webster’s is simply “the real facts about something.”

Hearing, understanding or telling the truth can be exhilarating, painful and full of angst as well. Those of us in the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community can attest to the power of truth and the pain that truth often carries with it.

Coming out can bring a wide range of experiences and emotions. Realizing and telling the truth about oneself can be life affirming and profound, but it can, and often does, bring the overwhelming sadness that comes when one dares to tell the “real facts” about one’s self.

As therapists and counselors, we are often called upon to help a patient or client tell their story in a frank and truthful manner. The telling of the story is where the therapy lies; we [the counselor] can only sit on the sidelines and listen to the pain and the juxtaposed happiness that being truthful about one’s sexuality brings.

I recently saw a movie titled Free Fall, produced by Stephan Lacant and staring Hanno Koffler and Max Riemelt. It is a story about two German police officers who fall in love and have an affair. However, unlike many movies in the same genre, it is told simply, dramatically and powerfully. The movie instantly became one of my favorite movies.

I would recommend this movie to any of my clients who might be in the process of telling their own coming out story. The acting in the movie is actually not bad, and the story has been told many times in many different movies. There is sex, but not gratuitous, drama without being pathos, and a developing love story that is mature and to the point.

I would not only recommend this movie to therapists, but I would use it as a discussion base for therapy with a client. It is comprised of the “real facts” — the truth if you will. My clients deserve nothing less.

 

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Hope Springs (2012)

Submitted by Maureen C. Kenny*, a professor of counselor education at Florida International University in Miami

 

A movie that I believe represents counselors in an ethical and professional manner is Hope Springs. Steve Carell portrays a counselor (Dr. Feld) who works with a couple that has lost intimacy over the years. They have been married for 30 years, sleep in separate rooms and don’t have sex. The wife (played by Meryl Streep) reads a book by Dr. Feld and convinces her reluctant husband (Tommy Lee Jones) to attend a weeklong couples treatment.

An impressive strength of the film is that the difficulties of the couple are realistically portrayed. The husband struggles with talking about sex with the counselor, while the wife is more open but also apprehensive. Watching them open up in sessions is almost painful. There are silences, there are unstated emotions, and all the while, the counselor is present and working. Dr. Feld is thoughtful, attentive and empathic to the couple’s problems.

The film also shows the struggles people often have committing to treatment (e.g., wanting to keep the status quo, complaints of financial cost, difficulty with self-disclosure and embarrassment).

Most remarkable is that while many movies and television shows portray the counselor breaking boundaries (e.g., becoming friends, overly self-disclosing and, most egregious, engaging in sex with the client), Dr. Feld is represented as a competent and empathic counselor. His depiction is of particular importance in this film because the couple is dealing with sexual and intimacy issues, which in another film might lead to counselor boundary crossing. Dr. Feld does not traverse boundaries, break confidentiality [or] make sexual advances to the wife. Instead, he “stays the course” with the couple. He assigns appropriate homework assignments and maintains a fair and nonjudgmental stance in the sessions. He is able to talk about sexual topics with the couple with ease, proving to be a role model for their increased communication. He normalizes the struggles they have and helps them find ways to address their deepest hurts in the relationship.

The film models a few things for counseling students: couples treatment, working with clients with sexual disorders and working with an older client population and the developmental issues that arise with aging. The counseling scenes in particular make for an excellent training tool.

 

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Raising Cain (1992)

Submitted by Sandy Range*, an LMHC in Stoughton, Massachusetts

 

Raising Cain is one of my all-time favorites! A professor in grad school (in 1997) had my class watch this film directed by Brian De Palma. I ended up purchasing it for my collection. Before entering grad school, I had a client I was a case manager for who had three distinct personalities caused by multiple childhood and adolescent traumas. Once I saw this film in grad school, I knew that trauma would be my specialty.

Raising Cain is a psychological thriller about one man and his four very different personalities (all played by John Lithgow, including the role of his sadistic, psychiatrist father).

Carter is a psychologist, husband and overly caring, helicopter dad. However, he is fearful and unable to take action or take control of his life. Cain is Carter’s twin brother who is psychotic and vicious, yet he gets things done on Carter’s behalf no matter who it hurts or kills. Josh, the little preadolescent boy, is always the victim; Margo, the shero (female hero), only presents herself when absolutely needed to protect Carter and the children from Carter’s father.

I own an outpatient mental health clinic in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Being a trauma specialist, I enjoyed this film (from a clinical perspective) because it shows how Carter’s psychiatrist father experimented on him as a child. Through torture, imprisonment and neglect, he intentionally split Carter’s psyche to see how many personalities would emerge. The others all play a part in doing and undoing the father’s horrific experiments on more children.

This film provided me a visual understanding of how the personalities work together and also against each other toward a goal. The personalities always serve a purpose and have a goal. This film helped me, as a mental health professional, to help my patients understand the goal of each personality and how they can work together, heal and eventually merge.

After viewing this film, I attained a differing insight and perspective into dissociative identities, schizophrenia and psychosis. Makes one wonder about the mind of (the film’s director) Brian De Palma though!

 

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The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Submitted by Daniel Jay Wiggins*, a master’s student (clinical mental health counseling) at Troy University in Alabama who is interested in student affairs counseling

 

The Squid and the Whale was written and directed by Noah Baumbach in 2005. This high-conflict, low-resolution indie film revolves around a fragile family system and is flavored with and characterized by the continuous shattering of the familial dynamic. The film is a great depiction of familial struggles, showcasing the relation between a parent’s weakened behavioral, emotional and interpersonal spheres of existence and the developmental immobility in children.

The two characters that caught my focus in the film were the sons of Bernard and Joan Berkman: 16-year-old Walt and 12-year-old Frank. The film focuses on the journey through divorce between Bernard and Joan and its effect on the children individually and collectively, as well as the divorce’s effect on the overall family dynamic.

Viewing this film through a developmental lens allows the viewer to fully see its multifaceted nature. The beauty of this film is [the portrayal of] the deep psychological and developmental aspects of each character, as well as the use of nontraditional familial conflicts between the protagonists. The characters each have severely damaged interpersonal relationship skills rather than simple, traditional character roles with expected or anticipated familial conflicts.

Through a more in-depth analysis of the film, clinicians should strive to a) identify the characters in struggle; b) understand the comparison/contrast between where each of them should be developmentally according to [Erik] Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development and where they actually are; and c) understand which technique(s) would best be used to help the clients from a wellness perspective.

The Squid and the Whale makes for a great beacon of reassurance for doubtful mothers and fathers everywhere. From an analytical clinician’s perspective, Frank is identifiably stuck in the fourth stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development (industry vs. inferiority), which will undoubtedly create problems for his movement through the fifth stage of development (identity vs. role confusion). Walt has adopted his father’s personality as his own, which is observably incongruent with his authentic self. In Eriksonian terms, he is stuck in the fifth stage of psychosocial development. Both boys have several abnormal behaviors that reinforce the hypothesis of their mental and/or cognitive instability. Frank and Walt show great potential for improvement and developmental resolution. However, the developmental crises must be resolved or else they will continue to negatively affect each boy’s personality and identity until resolution occurs.

I think The Squid and the Whale did a great job of representing modern familial struggles through an overall fragile familial system without going over the top.

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Batman Begins (2005)

Submitted by Michael Brant*, a graduate student in the professional counseling program at Liberty University. He lives in Pennsylvania, near the border of Maryland and plans to practice in Maryland.

 

I especially like Batman Begins because of its origin story. The character of Bruce Wayne/Batman has been around for over 75 years. I believe a lot of the character’s success is that unlike most superhero characters, such as Superman or Spiderman, Batman is a mere human. His humanness makes him easy to identify with.

There are many mental health concepts within Batman Begins. Grief is a key element to the young Bruce Wayne that he carries with him after the death of his parents. Bruce holds on to the past and will not let go of it. It seems as though he has a major depressive disorder that was triggered by his parents’ death. This comes out in how he has an alter ego, Batman, yet still passes himself off as the rich Bruce Wayne. This is how some [people] who have milder conditions take great strides to hide their condition. Additionally, due to his alter ego, the idea of a personality disorder is also an issue.

One of the other areas that deal with mental illness is the Arkham Asylum. Dr. Crane (the film’s villain, also known as the Scarecrow) says, “Yes, but this is a mental asylum for the criminally insane. The unusual is usual here.” One of the questions raised by the film is what causes criminals to be criminals — is it an area within or without their control? Later on in the conversation, Dr. Crane continues, “We’re not talking about a few easily manufactured eccentricities.” This is referencing the idea of how someone might fake a mental illness as a defense for committing a crime. Dr. Crane also leads in a discussion about his advocacy for psychopharmacology and the belief in the mind’s ability to effect change in the body.

There are many areas in which questions are brought up that deal with ethics when it comes to Dr. Crane and the Arkham Asylum. I work with adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and often when I see depictions of places like Arkham Asylum on film, I think of places like Willowbrook State School (in New York City) where those with various conditions were sent and abused.

There are many more areas that I could continue to discuss. However, I think that this is a good taste without spoiling the whole movie. Think on these things while watching it either for the first time or the next time.

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Call Me Crazy (2013)

Submitted by Catherine Mukes*, an LPC in Texas who works at a mental health agency and plans to move to private practice

 

The movie I am recommending is titled Call Me Crazy. I ran across this film on Netflix and later realized that it was a Lifetime (channel) movie. The movie is a compilation of five interconnected stories about people with mental illness as well as those with family members who are mentally ill. The film addresses life with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and PTSD.

What I love about this movie is that it brings an honest and real look at how mental illness can impact lives — and also be overcome. It takes into account the real struggles that the individual and those around them deal with while trying to cope with the illness, including shame, denial and guilt. The film does not berate or belittle those with mental illness but depicts them as simply human.

It a warm, inspiring and well-crafted film that I think professionals, professionals-in-training, the community at large and clients could really glean from.

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Life as a House (2001)

Submitted by Everett Painter*, a counselor at Walters State Community College in Tennessee and a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville; he is also an adjunct instructor in the psychology department at Tusculum College in Tennessee

 

Life as a House offers several scenarios from which to evaluate crises. This is a story of a family in turmoil. The main character, George, is divorced, unhappy and lives in a dilapidated house that is the blight of the neighborhood. His ex-wife, Robin, is remarried but also remains unhappy. Significant friction and conflict exists between them. They have a rebellious 16 year-old son, Sam, who is tormented and angry. Sam actively tries to avoid them and experiments with a variety of drugs.

George is unexpectedly let go from a job he has held for 20 years. Soon after, he learns he has terminal cancer and only four months to live.

Over the course of the film, George is forced to consider issues related to intimacy, work, parenting, substance abuse, communication and mortality. While we never see him seek formal treatment, the process of therapeutic change is depicted in a natural way as people rally around and reconnect with him. The power of social support and unexpected pathways to resilience is revealed.

Life as a House progresses at a rapid pace and is inconsistent with more realistic timelines and the crooked pathways typical of crises or personal transformations of this nature. Nonetheless it is a dramatic illustration of the opportunities embedded in traumatic experiences. This story represents a specialized case featuring compounded losses. It reminds us that in such instances, counselors must have a broad set of skills in order to manage the complex range of emotions and psychoeducation necessary for client care and ethical practice.

In the end, the renovation of George’s house that takes place throughout the film is a metaphor for rebuilding a shattered life. The process that unfolds is analogous to crisis counseling, as elements of empowerment, support, resiliency, growth and meaning are all addressed. George, as well as the rest of his family, is transformed by the experience that embodies the ultimate goal of moving a client from a maladaptive, lowered level of functioning to that of survivor, where strength and growth replace distress.

As George says in the film, “Sometimes things happen for a reason … something bad to force something good.”

 

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Iron Man 3 (2013)

Submitted by Daniil Marchenko, a recent master’s graduate in counseling psychology and a lover of all things “nerd” who is currently pursuing his counseling licensure in Texas

 

Even superheroes have mental health problems.

I liked two things about Iron Man 3. The first is that Tony Stark’s (Iron Man’s) mental health issues were not central to the plot. Unlike more typical mental health movies, Iron Man 3 was not about his mental health issues. It was about Iron Man doing his Iron Man stuff and dealing with his mental issues as they showed up. It presents a truer picture of a typical mental illness than some other movies that are centered specifically on the issue.

The second thing I liked is the popularity of the movie. Identifying with Tony Stark is more socially acceptable than identifying with characters from Good Will Hunting (the 1997 film that also deals with mental illness). Imagine a teen presenting with anxiety in your office. You show him or her a clip of Tony Stark having a panic attack. Panic attacks suddenly become more manageable and less stigmatized. Because now your client can be like Iron Man. And we all want to be a little like the superheroes that we love.

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A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Submitted by Amy Valentine, an NCC in Los Angeles who works in workforce development and uses her counseling background for team-building exercises and training for businesses

 

I love the movie A Beautiful Mind, as it demonstrates what it is like to experience schizophrenia from a first-person perspective. The audience gains a wider perspective and appreciation for this mental illness.

The film is based on the life of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who suffered from schizophrenia. It makes you really think about what it is like to experience this illness on a daily basis. From a personal standpoint, I found myself empathizing with the wife of the main character.

From a family systems perspective, this gives the clinician and counselor great insights to utilize as a framework for diagnosis and treatment. The director did a great job from a perception point of view. The emotions one experiences while watching this movie will transport you into another’s point of view, allowing you to experience schizophrenia firsthand. I enjoy movies like this.

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What Dreams May Come (1998)

Submitted by Harland C. Wable*, a co-occurring specialist in the field of chemical dependency and licensed mental health counselor associate in Spokane, Washington

 

Within What Dreams May Come there are the all-important factors of relationship building, raising a family and parent-child dynamics. It seems like parents are [too] busy to raise their children and choosing their careers over children.

It raises questions about the different aspects of children wanting the approval and affection of their parents and children becoming distant. The film also deals with the loss of children, depression, suicide and suicide attempts, frustrations, anxiety, loss and despair.

And not lost in all of this is the all-important aspect of love. There is a love that runs deeper than anyone can imagine. During the first part of the movie, one has to look for it, as it is hidden in different aspects of life. During the later parts of the movie, it is not difficult to see the love that is so strong that one would do anything to find [his or her] soul mate.

Of course there is a lot more to this movie than meets the eye.

As a chemical dependency counselor, there are no major chemical dependency issues [in the film]. But from a mental health viewpoint, [there are many such issues].

Love this movie.

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Another Year (2010)

Submitted by Heather Zeng*, an LPC in San Francisco and core faculty member at Capella University

 

Another Year is a portrayal of a well-adjusted British family over the course of a year and their constellation of friends who have challenges coping with life. It’s a favorite to share with counseling students because it’s a distinct portrayal of individuals who forge healthy relationships and those who don’t, with the ensuing aftermath and implication of these impasses to themselves and others around them. The language of the lead character, Gerri, a therapist, is helpful to observe as she models many positive counseling skills, from listening to gentle confrontation in her work and life relationships.

Gerri and her husband, Tom, are gardeners, and you might say they cultivate empathy and compassion in their lives. In one part of the movie when explaining his work to his family and friends at dinner, Tom states in so many words, “I dig holes in the ground to see if things can be held up under our feet.” Essentially, another way of describing his wife’s role as a therapist — digging deep into individual’s selves to find structure in their lives to rebuild.

Tom and Gerri’s life is contented. They tend to their garden of life, and this is how it grows.

However, their friends are another story. Gerri’s friend Mary from work is fragile and frazzled, gliding into everyone’s life with restlessness. Nothing has stuck for her except her work. All problems are perceivably solved by the next great relationship. She’s assured a car will be the answer to her frustrations in life, [but] it only makes things worse. In one scene, she doesn’t want to drop off Joe, Tom and Gerri’s son, as she feels she will get lost and not find her way home. It’s analogous to how lost she is in life. Mary assuredly states several times in the film, “If you have the need to share anything, I’m here for you,” assuming others have the weighty trials she has.

Gerri is compassionate to Mary as a friend, forgiving of all her failings and foibles, until she turns jealous and overtly adversarial to her son Joe upon his good fortune of finding love and happiness in a new relationship.

Equally, Tom’s friend Ken is in the midst of his own struggles, overeating, overdrinking, overworking. At a mutual party, Mary comments about Ken negatively, to which Gerri affirms, “Life isn’t always kind, is it?” The compassion Gerri shows for Ken, Mary cannot offer in turn to him. She is too enmeshed in her own limited view to see that, indeed, in many ways they (she and Ken) are on mutual life tracks. That is, lonely and grieving of nonevents in their lives.

So for your next movie assignment, consider Another Year! Try to have students take a character and transcribe their comments. It can be insightful [concerning] how what is said and what is done can be miles apart. In contrast, it also affirms that perception can be a powerful tool for valuing what is and not what might be. It can also be a great qualitative question for students: How does your garden grow (a metaphor for life and relationships)?

 

 

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Don’t see your favorite movie listed here? Add it in the comments section at the end of this article. Be sure to include why you think it’s a good portrayal of counseling or mental health themes.

 

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Related reading

Check out St. Louis LPC Ryan Thomas Neace’s piece on Good Will Hunting: ct.counseling.org/2014/10/pass-the-popcorn-counseling-in-the-movies

 

Also, see Counseling Today’s 2011 feature article on cinematherapy: ct.counseling.org/2011/10/big-screen-therapy

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday

 

16 Comments

  1. Mohammed

    Beautiful mind is amazing
    It Is a must to watch and teach in psych colleges
    It really gives you what it likes to when someone has schizophrenia

    Reply
  2. Shannon Moseley

    I would add “Night Mother” with Sissy Spacek. While the entire movie is gut wrenching and the ending heartbreaking; it gives a vivid and introspective account of depression and suicidal ideation. It also challenges the viewers thoughts and feelings about suicide on a visceral level.

    Reply
  3. Bill Owenby

    I enjoyed ‘The War at Home’, which portrayed a war veteran coming home to a misunderstanding and ill-patient family. Emilio Estevez demonstrates the difficulties navigating PTSD symptoms within himself, as well as attempting to survive the judgmental and assumptive nature of family and the environment, only to negatively outlash at his family once the symptoms and stress are too much. This movie finishes with the reality that some veterans are not accepted during their times of struggle, and especially in times of symptomatic behavior (outlashes), as his father throws him out of the house, home, and the family’s life.

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  4. Allison Spicer

    GIrl, Interrupted. Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. An autobiographical look at Borderline Personality Disorder as well as the dynamics of a psychiatric hospital in the 70’s.

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  5. Robert Branch

    Don’t forget Don Juan DeMarco! A story where the client teaches a thing or two to the therapist about living life to the fullest.

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  6. Joyce Cuddy

    Good Will Hunting
    As someone who works with adolescence, this movie with Robin Williams and introduced us to the Oscar winning talents of Ben Afleck and Matt Damon is about the importance and power of peers who accept you for who you are without judgement and Williams as the type of clinician that was able to move Matt’s character to new goals that included leaving the safety net that he had developed to cope.. This movie always motivates me to be a better counselor and reminds me why I do what I do.

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  7. Kathie

    Lars and The Real Girl and Phoebe in Wonderland were two of my favorites. A friend in the field suggested them and I’m glad she did.

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  8. Christina Choritis PCA Counselor

    Intimate strangers (2004)

    On the importance of being listened to.
    A Frenchwoman tells her marital troubles to a man (an accountant) she mistakes for a psychiatrist, and soon they form an unusual relationship.

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  9. MKZ

    Good Will Hunting (1997) has thought me so much about the crucial importance of the therapeutic relationship and how therapists must not forget our own humanity. I love how the film depicts personal development vs. Intellectal development. An amazing and beautiful story that all students in mental health and therapists/psychologists should watch.

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  10. Bruce Smith

    Shutter Island
    A Dangerous Method
    But who can forget the old classic Now, Voyager? Caude Rains plays a wonderful therapist.

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  11. Lisa Francis

    Spanglish (2004)
    For clients who are in a relationship with a Borderline: Deb, Tea Leone, provides an example of the impact of BPD behaviors on her spouse (Adam Sandler) and child. Lots of come close – go away and manipulation to view from afar…

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  12. Chad Steele

    I loved the inclusion of two comic book movies in the article! I would like to add a more recent entry: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The continued story of Peter Quill (Star Lord) and his space gang is actually a story of family. In the movie, he finally meets his long-lost father who he discovers has a dastardly plan for him and is attempting to use him for selfish gain. He learns through a series of events that the space pirate who abducted him from Earth as a child (Yondu) actually did so to save him from his ego-maniacal biological father, and thus realizes this man that he was afraid of his whole life actually functioned as his father. Sadly, it takes a tragedy for him to realize this dynamic.

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