Families in Psychiatry

Storytelling that heals: Movies and families



Movies are storytelling in high definition. Have you ever used movies to teach your students or residents? Have you ever prescribed therapeutic movie watching to your patients, families, or couples? Movie watching helps us to understand and process the challenges we face. Movie watching helps us to imagine new stories for ourselves.

Stories connect us to our own families. The experiences of our elders and other family members are the story of our family and give coherence to our own life story. We may identify with a family member whose life experience resonates with our life experience; maybe it is the relative who perseveres, or the black sheep, or the one with depression, or the pioneer, or the one who settles for happiness or the alcoholic or workaholic. Maybe we cherish stories that connect us to our generation rather than our family, such as stories about a generational war experience or the stories and camaraderie of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Stories help us understand ourselves. Stories give us scripts, maps, mental models, metaphors, and narratives to help us navigate through our lives. Stories are how we explain our lives to others, reach decisions, understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social and moral values. Many children come to understand the morals of the world by reading about the lives of animals in Aesop’s Fables. How often do parents have to read the same story over and over to their child? Familiar stories give our lives a narrative structure that is familiar, predictable, and comforting.

Storytelling is fundamental to all cultures. Stories live in our imagination. We can rehearse imagined experiences and imagine our life story in many different ways. Stories help us step out, step forward, see the world and ourselves. Story reading and movie watching help us imagine. Psychotherapy is a therapeutic way to help patients relinquish old stories and begin to construct a new story about themselves.

Movie watching can be used in therapy and has been studied as a therapeutic tool. Cinema therapy, or movie therapy, is considered a form of supplemental therapy and a form of self-help. Cinema therapy was popularized by Gary Solomon, Ph.D., the first to write on using movies as therapy (“The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call Me in the Morning.” Santa Rosa, Calif.: Aslan Publishing,1995).

Watching movies was used in one arm of the first long-term investigation to compare different types of early marriage intervention programs. In this study, 174 couples in their first 3 years of marriage were enrolled in one of three treatment arms: conflict management, compassion and acceptance training, or relationship awareness through film. Each arm was equally effective in reducing the 3-year divorce/separation rate for newlyweds from 24% to 11%.

The first arm

The conflict management group learned “active listening” or the “speaker-listener technique.” This technique slows down communication and helps individuals focus on what their partner is saying. The practice requires one spouse to listen and then paraphrase back to the partner what the spouse heard to ensure the message has been properly understood. This technique has been shown to be effective at promoting happier and more satisfying relationships for 3-5 years (see the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program). This model provides couples with training in communication and problem-solving skills, as well as relationship expectations, friendship, and commitment.

The second arm

The compassion and acceptance training cohort focused on couples working as a team. Through a series of lectures and exercises, couples were taught to approach their relationships with more compassion and empathy by doing things like listening as a friend, practicing random acts of kindness and affection, and using the language of acceptance. Both programs involved weekly lectures, supervised practice sessions, and homework assignments over the course of a month, for a total investment of roughly 20 hours, with 18 hours of therapy time.

The third arm

The movie-and-talk group attended a 10-minute lecture on the importance of relationship awareness and how watching couples in movies could help spouses pay attention to their own behavior, both constructive and destructive. They spent 10 hours on “movie and talk” with 4 hours outside of the home. After each movie, the couple discussed a list of 12 questions about the screen couple’s interactions. Questions included: “How did the movie partners handle arguments? Were they able to open up and tell each other how they really felt, or did they tend to just snap at each other with anger? Did they try using humor to keep things from getting nasty?” The couple was asked to consider in what way the movie relationship was “similar to or different from your own relationship in this area.”


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