Tag Archives: cinematherapy

Counseling outside the box

By Bethany Bray February 25, 2021

Clients bring an unending range of presenting issues, personalities, life histories and challenges into counseling. Fortunately, counselors also have an infinite supply of tools for forging therapeutic bonds, meeting clients’ needs and helping clients tell their stories.

Counselors need only flex their creative muscles to find approaches that can bolster trust with clients and speak to each person’s unique life experiences and worldview. Exploring a client’s interest in skydiving as a metaphor for self-awareness and trust? Discussing a favorite dish or recipe as a prompt to get a client talking about family-of-origin issues? Assigning a client to play video games online with peers as a first step toward addressing social anxiety? The sky’s the limit.

Counseling Today contacted several counselors who are using interesting, fresh or different approaches to help their clients and students. We hope that you will be inspired by their ideas and possibly use them as a jumping-off point to think outside the box in your own work.

Sparking connection with photos

As the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

American Counseling Association members Brandee Appling and Malti Tuttle believe the truth of this saying holds up even in counseling settings, especially in the age of smartphones, when photography is ubiquitous. Why not leverage that by asking clients to bring photos and images into sessions, they reasoned. Prompts such as “bring in an image that represents you feeling happy” or “bring in an image that represents your family” can be eye-opening for clients and clinicians alike, Appling and Tuttle say.

The duo, former school counselors who met while working as co-coordinators of the school counseling program at Auburn University, have found that “phototherapy” can encourage dialogue and boost empathy and connection in counseling. This can be especially true in group settings, with child and adolescent clients, and with individuals who struggle with speech or whose primary language is not the same as the counselor’s.

Photos and images introduce “another mode of communication” in counseling, says Tuttle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who is an assistant professor and school counseling program coordinator at Auburn.

“Photographs can bring insights into someone’s life that we might miss when talking — things that the client can’t verbally express or doesn’t think to,” adds Appling, an LPC and approved clinical supervisor who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia. “It helps to break down walls [in session] and makes it easier for the client to talk about something that’s concrete rather than [topics] that are in the air, so to speak.”

When Tuttle and Appling have used this approach in school settings, students have often been able to display photos on their cellphones. If students don’t have access to a cellphone, they may be able to check out digital cameras from the school, or the exercise can be widened to include printed images such as postcards or magazine clippings, the counselors say.

The counselor’s role is to prompt conversation by asking questions about the client’s image and then allowing the client to reflect and speak. The counselor should never try to interpret the image or impose their feelings about it, Appling stresses.

“This is not to be used to diagnose [clients]. This is not meant to be a stand-alone tool but part of a range of counseling tools,” Appling notes. “It’s one thing that we would use, but it’s not the only thing we would use. It should be part of the therapeutic process, one tool to use in an interrelated system.”

In group settings, an assignment to bring in an image that “represents you” can help participants get to know one another, build connection and create a sense of belonging, Tuttle says. Asking group members to explain why they chose their image can prompt meaning-making, empathy and recognition of others’ viewpoints and perspectives. It can also provide the group leader a glimpse into each group member’s personality and emotions.

The exercise “builds a sense of universality and connection with one another, [prompting] conversations that might not happen organically,” Tuttle adds.

She suggests spurring dialogue in sessions (whether individual or group) by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • Why did you choose to bring this particular photo?
  • What meaning does it hold for you?
  • What would you title this photo, and why?

Appling has used this approach with a group she ran for students who were going through family transitions (e.g., divorce, a death in the family, living in foster care). When asked to share an image that represented the changes they were going through, one student brought in a photo they had taken of a unique seashell.

The seashell “was a representation, for them, of where they had been,” Appling recalls. “It looked very different than any other seashell that I had ever seen, and I initially didn’t recognize the image as a seashell. We talked about how water had changed it and eroded it. The seashell represented [the student] but also the growth and change they were experiencing.”

This intervention can also be flipped, with the counselor bringing in a photo for clients and students to discuss. When presenting on this intervention at conferences and trainings, Appling and Tuttle use an image of an aging set of concrete steps with vegetation growing through the cracks. They ask participants:

  • What do you think this image means?
  • What emotions does it elicit?
  • What does this photo remind you of in your own life?

Despite being shown the same image, participants typically share a wide range of thoughts, reactions and associations regarding the picture, Tuttle and Appling say. Some people see resiliency and growth in the vegetation, whereas others see decay and despair in the cracked steps.

“It’s really interesting to be able to see the perspective of each participant,” Appling says. “It’s a lesson that we all see things very, very differently and that it depends on the things we have been through, our different lenses. It’s a lesson that we all bring different experiences and viewpoints.”


Walking (and running) the walk

Counselors can use a seemingly unlimited number of running-related metaphors to encourage clients: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Focus on the mile, not the marathon. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

But for Natae Feenstra, an LPC with a private practice in Smyrna, Tennessee, this approach goes beyond the metaphorical. An experienced runner who has completed multiple marathons, she sometimes conducts outdoor counseling sessions with clients as they run and talk, side by side. As a counselor who specializes in “running therapy,” Feenstra offers running sessions for clients who are comfortable with and interested in donning their sneakers and hitting the trail with her.

“For the client, it’s first and foremost a counseling session,” says Feenstra, who is working on a dissertation on running as a therapeutic treatment for trauma as part of a doctorate in counselor education and supervision through the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky. “A goal to get to a certain number of miles is never part of a client’s treatment plan. The goal is improvement of mental health, and running is a tool for that.”

Counselors have long known the benefits that movement and exercise can have on mental health, including stimulating the release of endorphins, dopamine and other brain chemicals. Engaging in movement and exercise also offers opportunities for processing thoughts and mindfully focusing on one’s breath and stride.

“Natural bilateral stimulation — that’s all that running is. Rhythmic movement of large muscle groups, and we know that can bring amazing benefits to our brain,” explains Feenstra, a former school counselor who recently transitioned into private practice. Running therapy also offers the built-in ecotherapy component of enjoying sunlight, fresh air and views of nature as she and the client run and talk, she adds.

Feenstra’s approach is individualized. If a prospective client requests running sessions, Feenstra agrees only after having at least one consultation to get to know the client and their presenting concerns and determining whether the approach would be a good fit. She also offers walking and walk/run sessions, as well as traditional, stationary counseling sessions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Feenstra is conducting all of her traditional counseling sessions via telebehavioral health. She continues to offer in-person running therapy for clients who are comfortable doing that, while following health guidelines concerning physical distancing as much as possible.

Above all, she suggests running only if the client is comfortable with it. She points out that clients don’t need to be experienced runners to engage in this approach. She modifies each session to the client’s ability and comfort level. “It’s never about the pace or distance of the run. It’s about the movement, going alongside the therapeutic conversation,” says Feenstra, a member of ACA.

Feenstra has seen significant improvement in clients presenting with anxiety and depression who engage in running. Her clients have also self-reported boosts to their self-esteem, self-efficacy and overall wellness.

In addition to the mental health benefits that running provides on it own, these mobile sessions can help strengthen the counselor-client bond and support clients who might otherwise struggle to open up in a more traditional therapy setting, says Feenstra, who is also a certified running coach with the Road Runners Club of America. “Some people are intimidated by eye contact or other aspects of face-to-face sessions, or being in an office with a power differential. For some people, [running during counseling] can help them speak more freely,” Feenstra says.

This was recently the case for an adult male client on Feenstra’s caseload who presented with severe depression and anxiety. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his condition had worsened to the point that he was no longer leaving home.

When Feenstra and the client began meeting, counseling sessions were the only time the man ventured out. They eventually transitioned to mobile sessions, beginning with a walk/run mix to fit the man’s comfort level. Within a few sessions, his anxiety and depression had lessened so that he was leaving his house more frequently and beginning to reengage in hobbies and activities that he had enjoyed previously.

“The platform of running therapy was what prompted him to leave the comfort zone of his house. A telehealth platform would not have made him leave his house, and he was not interested in pursuing [therapy in] an office environment,” Feenstra says. “In this case, the running therapy was what helped him pursue counseling services. I think it was the running piece that was intriguing [to him], and it was so helpful to get him outside to conquer his anxiety.”

Running therapy “is not a miracle treatment, of course, but there are cases where it can make a difference, just like any therapy,” she adds. Running therapy, pioneered by American psychiatrist Thaddeus Kostrubala, has been around since the 1970s, she notes.

For running sessions, Feenstra meets the client in a park, on a trail or in another public place that she is familiar with or has checked out ahead of time. She begins by warming up with the client and chatting as they stretch. After completing a run or walk, they finish by cooling down and reflecting on the session together.

Feenstra acknowledges the potential lack of confidentiality when holding counseling sessions in a public place. She addresses this with her clients ahead of time, both with detailed language in her informed consent forms and verbally, explaining that they can pause their conversation whenever another person is within earshot.

“I let the client dictate,” she says. “I let them know that [they] can choose to lower their voice, stop talking or continue talking if they are comfortable.”

While many counselors may not be runners themselves, they could have clients who enjoy running. Practitioners don’t have to offer running therapy to leverage running’s benefits for their clients, Feenstra points out. She sometimes incorporates running by assigning clients to run outside of session (again, only if they are interested and able) and then uses that to prompt counseling work in their next session together. Running provides an opportunity to relieve stress, tap into the subconscious and process thoughts away from the distractions of life, Feenstra explains.

Clients may find it helpful to keep a journal to record their thoughts, questions and discoveries made while running. This can be used as a self-development tool or as something the client brings into sessions, Feenstra notes.

“Since the run time is often prime time for thinking, clients and counselors can discuss [in sessions afterward] how the run went and what their thought process was like on the run,” Feenstra says. “Also, since running has an innate mindfulness component, this [aspect] can be used as a counseling tool. The counselor might give the client a thought to ponder or a mindfulness activity to meditate on during their run time.”


Movies and moral development

One of Justina Wong’s clients had served a long military career as a sniper with a special forces unit. His experiences in service, including multiple deployments overseas, had left him with posttraumatic stress disorder and a relative inability to show or express his emotions. When he did, it often manifested as anger. His relationship with his wife and family was becoming increasingly strained, and one of his children was beginning to fear him.

In counseling, what clicked for this client was Wong’s suggestion that he watch two movies that, on the surface, were geared toward children: Charlotte’s Web and Inside Out. Wong’s client was able to see himself — and many of the emotions he was having trouble identifying and expressing — in the moral arc these movie characters experienced.

“The response that he had was very powerful,” says Wong, who completed an internship at a nonprofit that serves military veterans and their families as part of her master’s in counseling program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. As they processed the movies together in session, “We talked about healthy coping skills and unhealthy coping skills. He began to open up more about what he saw and experienced in the military. He had a very hard time differentiating [between] feeling angry and feeling sad, which is common among this population. Feeling angry is accepted, but feeling sad is seen as [a] weakness or being undependable.”

Cinematherapy, or using movie storylines, characters and themes as a therapeutic tool, can be particularly helpful with child or adolescent clients and those who struggle with depression, trauma, loss or social anxiety, Wong says. It’s also useful for individuals who might not respond well to more traditional counseling interventions and those who have trouble opening up to a counselor, she adds.

Clients can observe and learn from movie characters’ struggles, growth and perseverance in the face of challenges throughout their story arcs, explains Wong, a member of ACA. Clients “can feel like they’re not alone because someone else [a movie character] is going through a similar thing. They can see a character’s unhealthy behavior, coping skills and what they did or didn’t do to manage. It can help clients communicate and voice their emotions and understand what their values are.”

A counselor can either assign a client to watch a particular movie (that the practitioner has vetted) outside of session, or the counselor and client can watch film clips together in session. Either way, the important part of the intervention involves the therapeutic discussion afterward, Wong says.

Wong, a recent graduate of the Chicago School, prompts dialogue with open-ended questions. For Inside Out, these include:

  • Which emotions do you consider to be positive, and which do you consider to be negative?
  • Tell me about a time when you suppressed a particular emotion and, as in the movie, your “island” started falling apart.
  • What islands do you have in your life?
  • What role do joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust have in your life?
  • Describe a time you felt embarrassment, shame or guilt regarding something from your childhood.

Wong stresses that cinematherapy must be individualized when used in counseling. Practitioners should carefully consider whether the approach is a good fit for each specific client and appropriate for their presenting concerns and therapeutic goals. She uses only movies that she is very familiar with and has prescreened. Her list includes About Time (2013), Mulan (1998 animated version), Yes Man (2008), The Lion King (1994 animated version), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Toy Story 3 (2010) and others.

“You really want to do your due diligence and make sure you’re using this intervention to the benefit of the client,” says Wong, a certified trauma professional. “If you don’t, it [watching movies] just becomes a recreational activity.”

The therapy goals of Wong’s veteran client included mending his relationship with his family and being able to have conversations without becoming triggered and angry. As a grown man and hardened military veteran, he initially bristled at the idea of watching children’s movies. But when he began to understand how they could help him strengthen his family relationships, he agreed. He watched Inside Out with his entire family and discussed Wong’s therapeutic questions afterward with his wife.

When Wong suggested he watch Charlotte’s Web, she warned him about the movie’s sad ending because he had never seen it before. Even so, Wong recalls, he was very upset in the following counseling session. As they began discussing the movie, the client realized that he identified with Wilbur’s feelings of isolation and loneliness. The pig’s friendship with the spider, Charlotte, reflected the camaraderie he felt and the bonds he had formed with the soldiers in his unit, some of whom had not made it home alive.

“He put two and two together and understood that when Charlotte dies, she couldn’t return home with Wilbur, and he [the pig] was angry, sad and in despair. [The client] had served in special forces and had lost many friends and was trying to bury and push away his troubles. … After processing it [in therapy], he understood why I chose that movie for him to watch,” Wong says. “The lightbulb turned on for him when Charlotte and Wilbur have a conversation in the movie and she tells the pig that she can’t return home with him.”

Wong talked these issues through with the client, supporting him as he processed, during which he began to show emotion and cry — a major breakthrough for someone who had appeared emotionless and “very by the book” at intake, according to Wong.

The movie discussion spurred the client to open up to Wong. He disclosed that during one of his deployments, several soldiers he was in charge of had died as they worked to secure and occupy an area. The area was eventually retaken by insurgents, and the client wrestled with feeling that his comrades had “died for no reason,” Wong says. He struggled with moral conflict and felt frustrated and betrayed by his commanding officers and the government. “It was powerful progress. He was able to talk about that, which he had never [done] before,” she says.

When used intentionally, cinematherapy can be a powerful tool, Wong notes. She was inspired to explore the approach after hearing Samuel T. Gladding, a past president of ACA and a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University, present on a range of creative interventions, including cinematherapy, at the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors conference in January 2020. “It’s up to the counselor to be as creative — or not — as they want to be,” Wong says. “I never thought of myself as a creative counselor, but when I heard Dr. Gladding’s presentation … I guess I’m more creative than I thought I was.”


Once upon a time

As a doctoral candidate at North Dakota State University, Robert O. Lester recently taught a class on group counseling to first-year, master’s-level counseling students. Most students, Lester notes, came into the class with an innate understanding of empathy, but as the class neared its end, he looked to delve deeper, teaching empathy in an applied manner.

He turned to fairy tales. Lester asked students to write a tale that illustrated some of the challenges they had encountered and the personal growth they had experienced over the span of the class. The assignment had just two requirements: Begin the story with “Once upon a time …” and don’t make fun of any tale shared in class.

The exercise succeeded in opening students’ eyes to a greater understanding of empathy while spurring the growth of their professional identities. It also equipped them with a creative intervention that can be used with clients in counseling sessions. Going through the “imaginative labor” of observing one’s self in unfamiliar places or scenes expands our concept of what is possible, Lester explains.

“Many students began with ‘I don’t have a story to tell,’” says Lester, a school-based counselor and ACA member. “You don’t need to have gone through some great suffering; you just need to be up close to your own desire and belief. It’s the distance of suffering that empathy can’t cross. It was an assignment to bridge the distance between ourselves and others by keeping the desire and suspending the disbelief. It’s about a willingness to let other worlds be possible. This is the initial move of empathy.”

Weaving one’s experiences into a fairy tale can be a helpful exercise for counseling students and clients alike because the stories are compact and give the writer the satisfaction of identifying a coherent story arc and conclusion, even if it’s not a happy one, Lester says.

Writing fairy tales “is expressive, playful and may surprise you. It can loosen the tongue for serious talk. Letting people become a little more enchanted and surprised with themselves would have a lot of possibilities [in counseling]. Then, it would be on the counselor to facilitate a good discussion afterward,” says Lester, who is now living in California and working as a counselor at an alternative-education high school while he completes his doctoral dissertation. “One of my favorite things about this [intervention] is when we surprise ourselves. … It can certainly break some of the narrative ruts we can get into.”

In counseling sessions, prompting clients to express themselves through fairy tales could be a good fit for “any situation where you want someone to begin trying on differences,” Lester says. “Organizing our experiences into an imaginative story — a story where there’s room for enchantment, and the marriage of emotion and imagination — [can be beneficial] for clients who operate with a lot of constraint in their life, either self-imposed or imposed by culture or external forces, especially if they’re having trouble imagining themselves otherwise.”

Fairy tales offer students and clients a chance to cast themselves in new roles, organize their experiences into a sequence, and reflect on the challenges they’ve overcome and how they’ve grown from start to finish, Lester explains. In turn, they gain an appreciation for their belief of what they’re up against and their desire for how they go on.

This benefit was magnified when Lester invited his counseling students to share and discuss their fairy tales in class. This enabled them to see how different each of their journeys were.

“At the deepest level, I was hoping the fairy tale project would be a hermeneutical project [and] part of their professional identity development — marrying your own worldview into the profession [and] taking the feelings of others seriously and compassionately, especially those who don’t experience the world as we do,” Lester says. “They are just beginning in counseling and have to learn to honor others’ worldviews. This fairy tale [assignment] was a compact way to help them begin by rendering their own experiences as unusual and in need of close reading.”

One of Lester’s students wrote an impactful fairytale about a protagonist named Mia. She lived in an idyllic village where everyone knew one another and worked according to their talents — except for Mia, who spent much of her time alone, reading. Although she liked her fellow townspeople, Mia felt something was missing in her own life, Lester says. She harbored an intense curiosity and sense of imagination that many of her neighbors did not share.

Her story took a turn when some creatures from the outlying forest visited her and asked for her help. An ancient well where they lived, deep in the forest, had dried up. The well was the source of the creatures’ magical powers.

Kindhearted Mia knew she had to help and journeyed into the forest, where she found the well in shambles. Her heart broke for the forest creatures, and at a loss for what to do, Mia began to cry. As her tears flowed, they filled and restored the well. Mia’s compassion had saved the day. Not only had she revived the creatures’ source of magic on her quest, she had also discovered her own sense of purpose.

In class discussions afterward, the student who wrote Mia’s tale talked about feeling alienated in the small town where she grew up. Everyone in town seemed to know how they fit into the fabric of the community, but this student was never able to find her niche, Lester says.

Her fairy tale was a beautiful description of this concept. “She [Mia] is looking for a world where her tears have a place and can do something on behalf of others,” Lester explains. This paralleled the student’s own struggle to find her way and cultivate her professional identity.

“We all go through growing up and forming identity, but her fairy tale elevated the experience,” Lester says. “Suddenly, Mia’s tears could do work and were life sustaining. I find that incredibly moving — that language of having permission to cry, because you don’t know what wells your tears might replenish. To me, that’s a whole other order of coming to apply empathy. [Learning empathy] begins with ourselves and becoming empathic with some of the pain and beauty of growing up. … There’s something poetic in that everydayness.”


Culinary therapy

Each of the elements in chef Samin Nosrat’s 2017 cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, can be used as therapeutic metaphors in counseling work with clients, suggests Michael Kocet, a professor and chair of the Counselor Education Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

If a dish doesn’t have enough salt, it can be bland, but if the cook oversalts the dish, it becomes inedible. “One little [extra] pinch of salt can ruin a dish,” Kocet says. “Talk that through with the client: In life, what do you have that’s not enough or too much? What in your life is that extra pinch of salt? Is it unleashing an opinion on a family member? How can we control that?”

Similarly, acid is very powerful and must be wielded correctly, as in ceviche, in which citrus juice is used to cook the dish without heat. Continuing the metaphor, a counselor can ask a client about the “acid” they have in their life. “Maybe their sarcastic humor is biting. Talk about when that can be useful and when it can be hurtful,” advises Kocet, a licensed mental health counselor and approved clinical supervisor who provides pro bono counseling at the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in Chicago.

Food, eating and cooking are so intertwined in most people’s life histories, perspectives and preferences that they can become beneficial tools when leveraged in counseling, says Kocet, who taught a course on “culinary therapy” when he was a professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Although he no longer teaches that class, he continues to weave culinary elements into his work with clients and students in Chicago and has provided workshops and trainings on the topic.

In addition to tapping into a bountiful supply of culinary-related therapeutic metaphors and conversation starters, counselors can consider giving clients the assignment (when appropriate) of cooking a dish at home and debriefing in session afterward. The dish doesn’t need to be anything complicated, Kocet emphasizes. It could be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a simple salad, he adds. Cooking or preparing food mindfully, no matter the recipe, can prompt reflection. Tracking experiences in a cooking journal may also benefit clients who respond well to this approach.

“Food is often a binding element,” Kocet explains. “If I have a client who is struggling in a relationship, I might have them cook a recipe that represents their relationship and talk about that [in session afterward]. Or if a client and their partner are from two different cultures, I might have them cook a meal that incorporates elements from their two cultures. … One aspect to [help] forge cultural connection with clients is to discuss food: what they grew up eating and what was ‘celebration’ food. That’s one way to get to know the client a little more. Clients are often really proud of food and cultural traditions, and it’s one way to connect and break down barriers in a counseling setting.”

Assignments for a client to cook with a partner or family member can prompt bonding and offer a fun and creative way to work on healthy behaviors introduced in counseling, Kocet adds. Also, cooking “failures” don’t have to be failures when talked about and learned from in counseling. Perhaps a client forgot an ingredient or strayed from the recipe. How does that parallel the choices made and lessons learned in their life outside of the kitchen?

Even time spent cleaning up and washing dishes after cooking can serve as a mindfulness exercise, Kocet points out. Practitioners could suggest that clients take time to reflect on how they felt stepping outside of their comfort zone to try a new recipe as they clean up the kitchen and feel the dishwater on their hands.

Kocet has developed a culinary version of the genogram mapping tool that he uses with clients to delve into family issues. He keeps a small collection of cooking spices and a sleeve of mini paper cups in his counseling bag. As he begins the exercise, he lines all of the spice containers up on the table and asks the client to select a spice that represents them and other members of their family circle. The client pours a little bit of each person’s spice into a separate cup. Eventually, a constellation of spice-filled cups is displayed in front of them.

Kocet prompts the client to talk through why they chose that particular spice for each person. Cinnamon or red pepper flakes might signify either a warm personality or a hot temper, Kocet points out. The exercise encourages clients to talk through issues related to their own identity and helps the counselor better understand how the person views their family network, Kocet explains. Similarly, questions that invite discussion of traditions and memories surrounding food can encourage clients to reflect and open up, while giving practitioners additional context on clients’ families of origin and related emotions.

Kocet, an ACA member and a past president of the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities (SAIGE), a division of ACA, specializes in grief counseling. “If a client is missing someone they lost, such as a grandmother, it can bring comfort to cook a dish that she used to make,” he says. “Cooking uses all the senses — we can connect with loved ones through the tastes and smells [involved] in the act of cooking.”

As with any counseling intervention, practitioners must be mindful of the ethical ramifications of incorporating cooking and culinary elements into therapy and consider whether it is appropriate for each individual client, Kocet stresses. Clinicians should practice caution in using the approach with clients who struggle with disordered eating, and cooking assignments should not be given to clients who have a history of suicidal ideation or self-harm because knives and other equipment could be involved, he says.

Kocet plans to continue exploring the use of culinary elements in counseling and is in the early stages of a research study on therapeutic cooking as a coping tool for the isolation, anxiety and depression people have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.



Staying within scope of practice

Practitioners considering the use of nontraditional approaches in client sessions must always keep the profession’s ethical guidelines in mind. Professional counselors’ licensure guidelines and scope of practice vary from state to state. Practitioners must ensure that any approach, whether a widely used talk intervention or one of many complementary methods such as aromatherapy, reiki, yoga, acupuncture and others, fall within their state’s scope of practice regulations before using them with clients or students.

In addition, counselors must consider the potential risks to client welfare, whether the approach is evidence-based (which is called for by the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics), and their own level of competency in using the method.



Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:


Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

All things connect: The integration of mindfulness, cinema and psychotherapy

By Bronwyn Robertson March 29, 2016

Barely able to breathe, a young man battling a panic attack hesitantly enters the group room and makes his way to an empty chair. He and a dozen others “check in” and are then guided through a simple, calming breathing exercise. The lights are dimmed and the group members are asked to focus their attention on the flickering images and pulsating sounds coming from a screen in front of them. Transfixed by these moving images and sounds, the young man’s anxiety begins fading away. He is no longer in the throes of a panic attack.

Seated next to him is a middle-aged woman who has been struggling with racing thoughts and rumination. She, too, is becoming engrossed in this experience, her thoughts slowing down as she shifts her attention to what is unfolding on the screen before her. She settles into a restful state.

The group sits together, sharing this experience, for 45 minutes. Afterward, they together process what they have just experienced. All report being in better moods, much calmer and more reflective than when they first entered the room. All the group members readily agree to explore their experiences in their journals during the upcoming week and then return to share their reflections with the group.

What these group members share a week later is both unexpected and remarkable. They bring journals filled with prose, poetry and sketches. One group member struggling with an addiction shares that focusing on this homework prevented him from relapsing. A few others note that they were inspired to make major life changes during the past week, letting go of unhealthy relationships and circumstances, and even embarking on new careers. Some report having been freed of creative blocks and now being able to paint, write or compose music for the first time in months — or years. All attribute their enhanced awareness and healthy changes to the experience of sitting together in a room and collectively focusing on the same moving images and sounds.

The group didn’t experience some new, groundbreaking therapeutic technology during those 45 minutes in a darkened room. Members viewed “all things,” an episode of The X-Files television series.


The therapeutic power of cinema

From full-length feature films to episodes of TV shows, cinema engages individuals like few other mediums. Leading researchers studying the neuroscience of cinema, via the emerging field of neurocinematics, have found that when groups of people view evocative, “well-directed” cinema together, they become collectively engaged through a phenomenon known as neural synchrony. Neuroimaging studies show that the activation of specific areas of their brains and their brain wave patterns actually become synchronized.

According to neuroscientists, the human brain is wired to connect with and be activated by cinema. The iconic Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman suggested that this connection might be even deeper: “No art passes our conscience the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”


X-Files image copyright of Fox

Cinema can be a powerful, transformative catalyst. As a licensed professional counselor, I have found that the therapeutic use of this catalyst, otherwise known as cinematherapy, can be profoundly effective with even the most troubled or resistant clients. While integrating cinematherapy within an experiential, mindfulness-oriented approach, I have used everything from The Wizard of Oz to The X-Files with more than 1,000 clients in individual and group therapy — with remarkable results.

Simply defined, cinematherapy is an expressive, sensory-based therapy that uses movies, TV show episodes, videos and animation as therapeutic tools for growth and healing. The clinical use of cinema has been found to enhance the therapeutic process on many levels, including strengthening the therapeutic alliance and increasing overall engagement in clients who are “difficult to-reach.” As noted by Joshua Cohen, co-editor of Video and Filmmaking as Psychotherapy: Research and Practice, cinema has been used as a healing tool since its inception “because creating and watching a film often can speak directly to the human soul.” What makes this medium therapeutic, he writes, is its use “with therapeutic intent within the safe environment of therapy with credentialed and trained therapists.” Cinematherapy moves beyond talk therapy “by appealing to clients’ visual, auditory and other senses” and offers “opportunities for self-discovery that are not found through words alone,” according to Cohen.

Neuroscientist Uri Hasson, a pioneer in neurocinematics, similarly notes that the multisensory, multilayered complexity of cinema provides viewers with an experience “that evolves over time, grabbing their attention and triggering a sequence of perceptual, cognitive and emotional processes.”

Evidenced-based therapy

Research spanning more than four decades has shown that cinematherapy is effective with many populations in multiple settings, ranging from outpatient to residential treatment, psychiatric hospitals to nursing homes. Cohen and his co-authors reference numerous studies in their book, including a pilot study dating back to the 1980s which found that the use of videos with 17- to 19-year-olds who had dropped out of high school resulted in enhancing their self-worth and self-esteem. More recently, Michael Powell, Rebecca Newgent and Sang Lee found the use of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy effective in the treatment of depression in adolescents.

Several notable international studies published in 2014 explored the use of cinematherapy within different cultures, settings and age groups. A Korean study by H.G. Kim noted the positive effects of a cinematherapy-based “group reminiscence program” on managing depression in nursing home residents. An Iranian study of “vulnerable women” receiving treatment from nongovernmental social service clinics in Tehran found cinematherapy effective in increasing self-esteem. Research from the University of Bucharest in Romania by Sorina Dumtrache concluded that group cinematherapy is effective in decreasing anxiety in young adults.

Cinema selection: Therapeutic resonance and relevance

Cinema must resonate deeply, on multiple levels, with clients for it to be effective therapeutically. The individual’s age, developmental level and relationship with the cinema selection are all crucial factors. As Cohen has noted, “Movies can help clients achieve insights if the movies are strategically selected for relevance to the client’s interests and needs in treatment.”

To meet the unique needs of my clients, I have to give careful consideration to cinema selection. My clients, ranging in age from 3 to their late 70s, have come from diverse backgrounds and have struggled with varying challenges, including anxiety, addiction, depression, domestic violence, grief, panic disorder, social phobia, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and trauma. The selections I use are based on the specific needs, strengths, challenges and aspirations of each individual.

For instance, I have found the films 28 Days, When a Man Loves a Woman and Flight to be particularly useful in helping adults with substance use disorders break through the denial of their addiction and gain a better awareness of the impact it has had on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. While doing a skills-based group on prevention of sexual exploitation for young women with intellectual disability, I discovered that all of the participants were avid fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I used an episode of the TV show to help them explore the risks of alcohol and drug use. I have also used the favorite cartoons of children in residential treatment in therapeutic exercises to enhance self-regulation and healthy attachment.

When carefully integrated within the therapeutic process, cinema has powerful healing potential. The iconic film The Wizard of Oz and the fantasy drama What Dreams May Come have long served as powerful catalysts of personal healing for my clients. With the help of these movies, they have explored core concepts of mindfulness such as resilience, compassion, acceptance and being present within oneself. Barnet Bain, the producer of What Dreams May Come, has noted that both cinema and psychotherapy use “the power of stories to heal.” An advocate of integrative body psychotherapy, he believes that we all “take refuge” and find healing in transformational stories. “In my view,” Bain explained during a brief interview with me at the Illuminate Film Festival in 2015, “any story that can lead one home to integration in the embodied present, that is a therapeutic story.”

It is through the integration of mindfulness-oriented practices and cinematherapy that I have seen the most profound changes in my clients. In group therapy, for example, I integrate mindfulness-oriented exercises before and/or after viewing cinematic selections, followed by in-depth processing of the cinematic experience. I also assign homework that includes practicing and applying mindfulness skills, watching “prescribed” cinema, journaling and engaging in other expressive exercises. Follow-up sessions explore cinematic experiences via group discussion and experiential exercises, including role-play and writing or rewriting one’s own script. Countless clients have reported that this integrative approach has helped them make life-changing progress.

Mindfulness, resonance and synchronicity

In my work, the therapeutic power of integrative, mindfulness-oriented cinematherapy was perhaps best exemplified by the impact that “all things” had on my clients. Unlike more typical episodes of the sometimes scary sci-fi show The X-Files, “all things” features no monsters, aliens or government conspiracies. Instead, it examines paths to personal transformation and investigates concepts of the mind-body connection, spirituality and synchronicity.

More than a decade ago, I was challenged with introducing mindfulness and mind-body healing concepts to clients who were court ordered for treatment because of substance use, domestic violence or related convictions. At the time, mindfulness was not yet mainstream, and very few of the people referred to me had any prior exposure to its concepts or practices. They were coming to group therapy to avoid incarceration, loss of their driver’s license or removal of their children from the home. These were individuals most in need of having simple, powerful, mindfulness-based skills and concepts to better manage their lives. I needed a means through which I could introduce these concepts in a nonthreatening, entertaining and effective manner.

Initially, I showed only those segments and sequences of the “all things” episode that best illustrated core concepts of mindfulness and mind-body healing, including slowing down, paying attention, acceptance, self-compassion and the impact of toxic emotions on health and well-being. Clients were so moved by these evocative clips that they routinely requested to view the episode in its entirety.

Coincidentally, the 45-minute episode fit very well within groups that ran 90 minutes to two hours, allowing us time to engage in mindfulness-oriented exercises before or after the viewing and time to process the experience as a group and discuss homework assignments. I have now used “all things” in its entirety with more than 1,000 clients in both individual and group therapy.

Over the years, I have used the episode in dozens of different groups focusing on everything from stress management to trauma recovery. These groups have varied from eight- to 16-week structured, skills-based groups to less structured, ongoing groups for individuals with chronic mental health needs. In nearly every instance, at least one group member has reported experiencing some sort of breakthrough or making some sort of positive life-altering change after viewing “all things.” In some groups, every member reported experiencing a significant impact. Many group members have noted that the episode’s images and themes resonated with them on a deeply personal level. In fact, numerous clients have contacted me months or even years after completing treatment and shared that the experience of viewing this episode, in a therapeutic context, played a significant role in their recovery and personal growth.

Having watched so many clients view “all things,” I have noted what moves and soothes them within this episode. Letting go of shame and guilt, seeking meaning in life experiences and “seeing the reasons why all things happen” are themes within the episode that resonate universally with clients. Grief, loss, shame, abandonment and exploitation are among the more personal themes that have emerged and brought tears to the eyes of many clients after watching “all things.” The episode became the means through which those clients could safely identify and begin to process their painful experiences.

The use of “all things” in group therapy has had yet another surprising effect. I found that clients become much calmer and more reflective immediately after viewing the episode. In dozens of cases, I have observed clients shift out of highly anxious or agitated states while watching the episode. As a result, they were better able to reflect on and process their reactions after viewing it.

The way “all things” was directed and filmed seems to have contributed to this effect. Pulsating chimes, dripping water, ticking clocks and tapping pencils set the rhythm, while slow-motion sequences and extreme close-ups focus viewers’ attention. Shots of a window shade toggle undulating back and forth, circulating fans, spinning wheels, flowing curtains, swinging signs and even the main character swaying back and forth while having a mystical experience in a Buddhist temple serve to grasp and direct the gaze of viewers.

I suspect that these cinematic devices are partly what produce an immediate calming effect on my clients, quite possibly inducing a state of mindfulness. They may even contribute to client “breakthroughs.” As if they were some form of cinematic eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, could the audio and visual techniques used in “all things” produce bilateral stimulation of the brain and subsequently enhance adaptive information processing and alleviation of affective distress?

Synchronicity, neural synchrony and interconnection

Neurocinematic research may well explain some of the therapeutic power of “all things.” The episode’s cinematic and thematic complexity, along with its well-directed and evocative sequences, are what neuroscientists have found to contribute most to interspectator neural synchrony, or the synchronization of brain activation and brain wave patterns across viewers. Intersubject correlation (ISC) measures the collective engagement of a group of viewers via neural synchrony. As researchers Kaisu Lankinen, Jukka Saari and Ritta Hari noted in 2014, emotional film clips enhance ISC. Likewise, “a well-directed movie,” in contrast to one that is loosely structured, strengthens ISC.

According to Hasson, a research scientist and lead author of an article titled “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film,” the concept of ISC is relatively straightforward and simple. “In cinema,” Hasson and his co-authors write, “some films (or films’ segments) lead most viewers through a similar sequence of perceptual, emotional and cognitive states. Such a tight grip on viewers’ minds will be reflected in the similarity of the brain activity (high ISC) across most viewers. By contrast, other films exert (either intentionally or unintentionally) less control over viewers’ responses during movie watching (e.g., less control of viewers’ emotions or thoughts). Throughout the years filmmakers have developed an arsenal of cinematic devices (e.g., montage, continuity editing, close-up) to direct viewers’ minds during movie watching. These techniques, which constitute the formal structure and aesthetics of any given cinematic text, determine how viewers respond to the film.”

When I inquired whether inducing bilateral brain stimulation and synchronized brain activity in viewers was intentional or intuitive, Gillian Anderson, the writer, director and star of the “all things” episode, indicated that it was the latter. She explained, via personal note, that she “had no idea” that those cinematic techniques could produce such “amazing” effects. As she has noted in previous interviews, the writing and directing of the episode was a “deeply personal” endeavor and an exploration of her own deeply held belief that “we are all connected.”

No stranger to counseling and psychotherapy, Anderson has both professional and personal connections to the field. She is currently penning a self-help book and has recently published the second in a trilogy of novels featuring a child psychiatrist as the main character. Personally, she began therapy at age 14 and credits it with keeping her “sane and alive.” She has been a strong supporter of counseling and psychotherapy ever since.

Anderson believes that cinema, like therapy, has powerful healing potential. “Any film that has a message that teaches people about themselves, that teaches people how to get out of a place where they are stuck and get on with their lives and get on with being a productive human being, is important,” she said. “Films are instruments to teach people, and they can affect people in profound and in life-changing ways.”




Note: My use of all films, television episodes, film segments and videos in group and individual therapy was done via “fair use” with no copyright infringement intended.




Bronwyn Robertson, a licensed professional counselor, has lectured and published internationally on the integration of mindfulness in counseling and psychotherapy. She specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression and trauma-related disorders. Contact her at Bronwyn@BronwynRobertsonLPC.com.

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Using “Inside Out” to discuss emotions with children in therapy

By Mercedes Fernández Oromendia March 25, 2016

When Inside Out, the latest Pixar movie, was announced this past summer, I was excited to see how the writers would represent complex human inner experiences in a fun and child-friendly way. As a counseling psychology graduate student, I often find myself trying to explain concepts about emotions to children or their parents and searching for creative ways to make our inner experiences more concrete.

Pixar did not take this task lightly. The computer animation film studio consulted with two of the leading scholars on emotion, Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, to ensure that the movie portrayed emotions accurately while also capturing the attention of its young audience.

Ekman and Keltner propose that there are seven distinct emotions experienced by everyone across cultures and ages: anger, joy, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise and contempt. The first five of these were the basis for the main characters of Inside Out. The collaboration between the movie’s writers and these two leading experts on emotions created a wonderful tool that clinicians can use to explain emotions to children and adolescents and their parents. It distills complex concepts from neuroanatomy and personality psychology into accessible and fun characters.

Audience members have the opportunity to imagine what it would be like if each of the five main emotions — joy, anger, disgust, fear and sadness — had their own feelings and how they might interact with each other.

The personified emotions take us on a roller coaster ride as they each do their best to help 11-year-old Riley adjust to moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. At the beginning of the movie, Joy tries to find the silver lining in everything, even when the movers lose the family’s things and Riley’s parents start fighting. Sadness seems to be inexplicably sad at all times, but Joy works hard to prevent Sadness from touching the control panel and making Riley experience sadness. As the story unfolds, several key points arise that can be useful to discuss with clients or with our own children:

1) All emotions are important and helpful at times.

2) We can have more than one feeling about an event.

3) Sadness is important and can foster connection with other people.

4) Feelings about past events can change over time. (So true!)

5) Expecting someone to be happy all the time is impossible. (Amen!)

6) Emotions may look a little different for each person.

These six messages can be communicated differently depending on the age of the child. With younger children or children who have difficulty identifying emotions, Inside Out can be a great tool to talk about what each emotion looks like and feels like. When the child is feeling sad, does he or she feel like Sadness: tired, droopy and wanting to cry? When the child feels angry, does he or she resemble Anger: making fists, yelling and wanting to run or hit? Having these types of conversations InsideOut2can be a crucial first step in teaching emotion regulation.

The film’s message that one event can bring up more than one emotion can be introduced into the therapy room by asking a child to write down or draw how Anger, Sadness, Fear and Joy feel about an event, such as an impending divorce. This activity might help children to recognize and accept that they are afraid of not seeing their father and sad about all the fighting but also excited by the idea of getting two sets of Christmas presents next year.

I used the same activity with an adolescent client who was considering ending a difficult romantic relationship. I had tried several other approaches to help her explore her thoughts and feelings around the relationship but hadn’t made much progress.

One session, she mentioned that she had seen Inside Out that past weekend, so I asked her to draw what each of the five characters from the film was feeling about her partner. Next, I asked her why she thought each character was feeling the way she had described. This activity made room for a wider range of emotions and helped the client increase her self-compassion and begin to accept that it was OK to be sad about ending a relationship, regardless of how problematic it had been.

InsideOutAnother helpful activity is to ask children and adolescents (and parents too) to imagine what the five characters are feeling in another person’s head. Doing so can build empathy and understanding and increase connection.

For instance, a girl may be angry at her father because he does not let her go to the movies alone with her friends. The therapist can ask her to describe or draw what is going on with each of the five emotions in her father’s head.

Through this exercise, the girl may slowly realize that her father might be afraid that something will happen to her, sad that she is growing up and soon will be missing family game nights on Fridays, yet joyful that she has friends. As a way to build parents’ communication and compassion with their children, I have also asked them to describe what they believe the five characters might be feeling in their children’s head.

These are just some of the ways that Inside Out can be incorporated into our daily interactions with children and adolescents to help foster emotional awareness, empathy and compassion. The applications are endless.

Now we just have to wait to see what happens to all those emotions when Riley reaches puberty …




Mercedes Fernández Oromendia is a counseling psychology doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Contact her at mfernandezoromendia@umail.ucsb.edu.




Related reading


Emotion, personified: What “Inside Out” gets right about mental health

By Erin Shifflett June 25, 2015

A person’s mind is a mysterious labyrinth of thoughts, feelings, memories, ideas and compulsions; the mind of a young girl is likely even more complex. Disney-Pixar’s latest animated offering, Inside Out, bravely delves into that intricate world in a way that effectively captures the nuances of the way people feel and think—and maybe helps them understand why they act the way they do sometimes.

Developed with the guidance of University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, the film tells the tale of Riley, an 11-year old whose family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco. Through the move, Riley loses her friends and beloved hockey team and is forced to transition to a place where pizza is served with broccoli as a topping and the cool girls in school wear eye shadow, much to Riley’s surprise. Guiding Riley on a consistent basis are the five emotions operating at Headquarters (Riley’s brain): Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. Each is displayed with a

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

corresponding color (Anger is a fiery red, for example). The emotions take turns ensuring that Riley reacts appropriately to everything that occurs in her life. This is where the viewer can begin to see how this film might resonate with those in the counseling profession—and their clients.

The dominant emotion in Riley’s life is Joy; she’s the “IT” girl, always front and center and determined to ensure that she has a big presence in Riley’s day-to-day activities and any memories that are formed. The other emotions are supportive of this because, well, they want Riley to be happy, and Joy is certainly the best one to make that happen. A shift occurs, though, when Riley finds herself trying to adapt to her new surroundings. Suddenly, Sadness starts to forcibly interject herself into Riley’s day. When the other emotions become frustrated and ask her why she’s behaving in such a manner, Sadness states simply, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me—I can’t help it.” This translates to Riley crying on her first day in her new school, and the other emotions become alarmed and concerned. This scene is a prime example of what this film “gets right” about mental health and also provides an opportunity for working with clients who feel “not themselves” or find that they’re behaving in an unusual manner after a trauma or sudden change in their lives.

People can’t expect to feel Joy all the time, and though we often attempt to push Sadness aside, it’s a normal emotion and it has a place in our lives as well. This scene might be particularly useful when working with young children as it provides a tangible, visual representation of something they might not have the ability to verbalize—being able to see Sadness in all of her gloomy, blue splendor will likely allow a child to better understand that particular feeling.

The importance of Sadness and, indeed, the other less pleasant emotions such as Fear, Disgust and Anger, is highlighted multiple times throughout the film when their roles and functions are explained. Disgust’s job description includes keeping Riley safe by ensuring that she avoids things that could harm her (poison, for example). Fear allows Riley to pause and consider a situation before acting. Anger makes it possible for Riley to express her frustrations and defend herself. These three-dimensional representations of normal, healthy emotions that are often regarded as negative or harmful open the door to conversations about feelings which might otherwise be difficult to address.

One of the characters in the film that will likely spark conversations between parents and children and, perhaps, counselors of children is Bing-Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend. There are some truly poignant scenes revolving around Bing-Bong’s dawning realization that Riley no longer needs him and has in fact begun to forget about him. One scene in particular takes place in “Pre-School Land,” which has a landscape littered with the usual artifacts of early childhood: building blocks, primary colors, dolls, etc. When Bing-Bong arrives on the scene, he witnesses a demolition team tearing down all of these items in order to make room for the other stages in Riley’s life. This scene presents a prime opportunity to talk with children about how they feel about the changes that are occurring in their lives as they make similar transitions from preschool to elementary school to middle school and beyond.

Lest anyone think that children are the only ones likely to benefit from the lessons learned in this film, it is worth noting that Inside Out is frequently touted as an adult movie made for kids. It offers multiple images and scenes that are likely to spark a note of reflection in even the most cynical and hardened adult hearts while the children in the audience are marveling at the bright colors and playful characters.

A primary example lies in the imagery of Riley’s “Islands of Personality.” These concepts— presented as literal islands tethered to Riley’s brain—are named after the most important qualities that make Riley who she is at this point in her life. There’s Family Island, Friendship Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island and Honesty Island. In a particularly effective approach, when something interferes with the essential quality of these notions, the tethers to one or more of the islands are destroyed and the islands themselves crumble and disappear. The first to go is Goofball Island—it represents Riley at her most silly, playful self. There are images of her running around after a bath as a toddler, making monkey faces with her parents, etc. As she begins to evolve emotionally, Riley no longer displays that particular side of her personality and, as a result, Goofball Island goes dark and falls into nonexistence. Other islands follow suit, and it is likely that adults watching this film will feel pangs of nostalgia as they recall—perhaps for the first time in years—which parts of their personalities have been lost along the way due to factors such as age, environment, obligation, etc. It is conceivable that counselors working with those who feel as if they’ve lost a clear idea of their identities and purpose may be able to reference this idea (Islands of Personality) as a way of identifying what has been surrendered and abandoned along the way, what the effects have been and whether or not it’s possible, necessary or appropriate to reconstruct some of them.

Inside Out marks the first animated foray into the world of emotions and mental health and presents everything in a way that is, above all, accessible. It is a certainty that those who filed into a cool, dark theater hoping for some escapism and an opportunity to be amused for ninety minutes came away with something much more significant—an opportunity to reflect on how emotions impact all of us and the importance of giving each feeling its due.



Avid movie buff Erin T. Shifflett is director of the American Counseling Association’s Ethics and Professional Standards department.


Related reading: See “Counseling goes to the movies,” Counseling Today‘s list of counselor’s favorite movies:  http://bit.ly/1AWKDcq


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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.)




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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.




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.




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.




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!




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.



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.



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.



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.”



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.



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.



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.



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)?





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.




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




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


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