The challenges of living with mental illness can certainly set the stage for compelling drama and may explain why there are so many movies that feature depressed, anxious or manic characters. Living with mental illness isn’t easy but it’s definitely not boring either.

A good movie can also provide a wonderful distraction from emotional pain or a place to put your unshed tears.  Whatever your reason, Psycom has some suggestions for you. We compiled this list by consulting some experts, asking a few of our contributors and soliciting input from our Instagram followers @Psycom. One of our regular contributors—New York City-based therapist Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW—loved the assignment so much she decided to conduct her own informal poll and ask her patients for recommendations. (See “Sherry’s Top 6,” below)

So, keep this list handy the next time you’re in need of a pick-me-up. And, let us know if you’d like to add any films to our list. Write a brief description telling us what a particular movie does for you and send us a message on Facebook or Instagram. Happy viewing!  

What Movies Can Do for Your Mental Health

Anyone who has ever experienced a change of heart or perspective after watching a movie can attest to film’s ability to influence the way we think about life’s dilemmas.  Some therapists even use “cinema therapy” to help their patients explore their own psyches and as a catalyst for the therapeutic process.

Birgit Wolz, PhD, MFT, a mostly-retired therapist in California used ‘cinema therapy’ (CT) with some of her clients. She developed a  CT course for therapists and wrote reviews of some movies used for this purpose. In one review about the movie Lars and the Real Girl (2007) she wrote that “…emotional responses to movie scenes or characters can help clients to understand themselves better. When certain movies resonate with clients, they touch into an preconscious or unconscious part of their psyche. A film may move them deeply. A character or a scene might also upset them intensely. Understanding their emotional responses to movies…can serve as a window to their unconscious.”

Laura Fonseca, MSW, LCSW, a child and adolescent therapist in St. Louis, Missouri says that movies from one’s childhood can be quite soothing for some teenagers. ”When experiencing triggers that cause feelings of anxiety or depression, I encourage teens to watch favorite movies from childhood as a way to calm down, relax, and ground themselves. This helps teenagers to move out of their lower brain to their higher brain and process their triggers in a calmer state.”

For some people horror films can be oddly comforting, according to New York-based psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz, CertPsy, MEd, PsyaD. “Horror movies can provide relief to the viewer,” Luiz says explaining that the reaction to horror films is quite similar to the solace many people find in tearjerkers. “The fight-or-flight they experience every day is given perspective. The extreme terror makes our real fears less hard to bear.”

Tamekis Williams, a licensed clinical social worker/therapist and owner of Real Life Solutions GA Therapeutic and Coaching Services in Atlanta uses movies to help clients reconnect with their authentic self and remove barriers like depression and anxiety that stop them from living a conscious, healthy and happier life. Black Panther has inspired many African American youth and adults. “Seeing the positive representation of their culture and heritage makes them feel proud and gives them a sense of confidence and self-esteem,” Williams explains. “Many are able to identify with the underlying meaning of the storyline and characters in the film. Also, entire families are going to the movies together, wearing movie-themed apparel, creating memories and enjoying the camaraderie of the experience. All of this richness enhances overall wellbeing and is just a lot of fun.”

William sometimes recommends sitcoms and standup comedy shows. “Laughter releases endorphins so programming that makes you laugh can be excellent for reducing stress and depressive mood symptoms. Watching comedy can reduce negative thinking, lessen feelings of isolation and help provide a sense of normalcy, too.”

Finally, Williams says that movies based on a particular mental health disorder can be beneficial if they present an accurate depiction of what it’s like to actually live with the disorder or live with a family member who has it. “Viewers often gain a more positive outlook on how to care for a loved one or change their perspective about people who live with the disorder,” she says. Unfortunately, several disorders are portrayed negatively in films. “The term ‘bipolar’ for example has been used casually in today’s terminology. For those who live with bipolar on a daily basis this may result in them not be taken seriously and as a result, not receiving the help they need.” 

Recommendations from Our Own Mental Health Community

Psycom managing editor Ann Gault loves Lars and the Real Girl staring Ryan Gosling when he was still relatively unknown. Lars is a likable introvert who has experienced real trauma in his life. His relationship with a life-size vinyl “love” doll named Bianca gives the residents in his small Wisconsin town something to gossip about. “I love this sweet but slightly-odd film for so many reasons. It provides insight into the connection between emotional challenges in adulthood triggered by childhood trauma. Parts of it are heartbreaking but in the end the movie has an uplifting message about the transformative power of compassionate people and the healing that’s possible with the help of a good psychotherapist!” Ann says.

Writer Susan McQuillan, MS, RD, CDN watches Love, Actually (2003) whenever she needs a lift. “I don’t know anyone who feels neutral about this movie—you either love it or hate it, and that can go either way depending on your frame of mind when you see it. Love, Actually is about relationships, love and loss but, to me, it’s mostly about hope and being true to yourself. It’s sweet and funny. When my daughter was growing up we would watch it together at least once a year and still do occasionally so for us, it’s also become a tradition and a happy memory.”

Twenty-something Megan Whalen described what it’s like to live with chronic worry and anxiety in her blog, Lies My Anxiety Tells Me. When she’s feeling blue, she likes to curl up on the couch and watch a classic, light-hearted musical—My Fair Lady; Singin’ In the Rain; The Sound of Music and Guys and Dolls—are some of her favorites. “There is something about a movie filled with music and dancing that inevitably cheers me up and gets me in a much better mood,” says Megan. “It’s hard to be anxious or sad when Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews are singing on screen. Added bonus: singing and dancing are mood boosters so I tend to get up from my couch and pretend I’m in the movie too!”  

Sherry’s 6 Feel-Good Movies When You Feel Sad

New York City therapist, author and relationship expert Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is also a fan of  ‘cinema therapy’. “Studies have shown that in a group setting at least ‘ cinema therapy’ can be effective in boosting mental wellness,” Sherry explains adding that even more than comfort food—pop tarts and mayonnaise-slathered chicken salad for her!—escaping into a beloved movie is the perfect mood-re-setter when you feel sad.

“For some people, watching larger than life (literally, when viewed on the big screen) fellow sufferers offers reassurance that you are not alone; invite someone in your life to watch with you so he or she can understand how you feel. Others find viewing a movie that personifies silliness or tells a gripping, seat of your pants yarn to be perfect medicine,” she says.

Sherry recently conducted an informal poll of her patients for their film recommendations. Here, some flicks to help you recapture hope, or at the least, glimpse a possibility of a different perspective on your troubles. (Note: The following reviews were written by Sherry and are in her voice.)

#1. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

My initial introduction to this movie was from a patient who wanted me to understand the ‘scariness’ of what went on in his mind. This emotionally resonant 2012 film starring Bradley Cooper as Pat, a man whose previously untreated bipolar disorder cost him both his marriage and job, appeared on many people’s lists. The movie begins as Pat, newly released from a mental hospital (he was committed after beating up his wife’s lover), moves back in with his parents and meets recently widowed Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who suffers from her own mental instability. Watching Silver Linings Playbook when you’re in a bad place is medicinal because it shows that having mental illness doesn’t define a person, that you can still find love, and more importantly, find strength within yourself to begin accepting that it’s okay not to be “perfect.”  Once you accept yourself, it’s easier to tackle rather than avoid your problems and find your center in the process.

#2. BRINGING UP BABY

Few things lift me out of a dark mood faster than this madcap 1938 screwball comedy classic with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant as an heiress who is instantly smitten with a stodgy, about to be married straight-laced paleontologist, who she entraps into a dizzily delightful plan that spirals to involve a tame leopard named Baby, a priceless dinosaur bone, a pet dog who loves to secretively bury priceless dinosaur bones, and an escaped not-so-tame circus leopard. Helplessly laughing at antics that have no meaning, are a perfect reminder that while there is much suffering on this globe, there is also joy!

#3. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT

There are tear-jerkers, and then there is the 1984 Best Picture Oscar winner staring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger (both also picked up Oscars) as Aurora and Emma, a widowed mother and daughter with a loving but tempestuous relationship that is tested over the decades. The women have a falling out after Emma marries Flap (Jeff Daniels) against her mother’s wishes. The young couple have three children but Emma eventually returns to her mother after tiring of her husband’s philandering ways. Aurora finds herself in a relationship for the first time in years with a skirt-chasing and scene stealing former astronaut Breedlove, played by Jack Nicholson. We are deeply invested in these richly imperfect characters well before Emma develops terminal cancer. The movie reminds us of the tapestry of life that contains so many weaves—love and disappointment; uncertainty and fear…. At times life can bring what feels like unendurable sorrow, but the ultimate reward of connecting is well worth the risk of reaching out to other human beings.

#4. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL

Even the most cynical and hopeless soul cannot help but feel uplifted after viewing 1982’s E.T., directed by Steven Spielberg. Ten-year-old Elliot (Henry Thomas) befriends an extra-terrestrial stranded on earth, and like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (also recommended when depressed!), all little E.T. wants is to go home. While Elliot and the endearing E.T. can’t communicate in words, their telepathic language helps bond these innocent kindred spirits. In addition to brilliantly depicting childhood wonder and magic (the scene of Elliot’s bicycle skating by the moon is a great visual to remember when you need a non-celluloid pick-me-up), the last third of the movie is a great adventure yarn as Elliot, his sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore)  and their friends embark on a desperate race to reunite E.T. with his ‘alien’ family before Government scientists capture the creature from outer space to study him. No matter how daunting the journey, never give up; there is always a way home.

 #5. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY

Nora Ephron’s beloved 1989 rom-com came up repeatedly on the lists of those I polled for this roundup. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as Harry, pessimist with a soul, and the uptight but achingly vulnerable Sally shine in this sunny, smart, at times hysterically funny (ergo the iconic fake orgasm in the diner scene topped by arguably the most oft-repeated line in movie history!) story of two friends’ 12-year journey to discovering they are made for one another. Their eventual declarations land so deeply with viewers because the love is grounded in mature yet neurotic, wholly known and believable characters who can be totally themselves with one another as long as they both shall live. Real love between flawed humans rocks!

#6. THE PRODUCERS

Another oft-mentioned depression buster by my respondents is perhaps the funniest movie ever made – the 1968 Mel Brooks’ five guffaws a minute-inducing The Producers. Zero Mostel as shyster Broadway producer Max Bialystock (just typing the name makes me smile) and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, Bialystock’s cringing accountant and accomplice in crime, form the laureates of comedy pairings.  When Bloom makes the observation that Bialystock, who raises money for his productions by seducing checks out of sex-starved little old ladies “could make a lot of money by over financing turkeys…the IRS isn’t interested in flops,” the two put in motion a scheme to create a 100 % destined to fail musical “Springtime for Hitler.” To ensure the success of their failure plot, they enlist as playwright neo-Nazi Franz Liebkind, played with 150 % brio   by Kenneth Mars. The best laid plans: The insanity of numbers such as the musical’s dance line of SS girls singing “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi Party!” make Springtime for Hitler the hit of the season. The non-stop manic outrageousness of The Producers will make you laugh so hard the sadness will roll right out!  

Instagram Weighs In

  • @ms.rockylove recommends The Holiday “When Kate Winslet is depressed and turns on the stove, then snaps out of it on her own—I’ve had those moments.”
  • @anne.charlotte.c “I can’t really explain it but the last remake of Annie (2014 staring Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie) makes me smile every time!”
  • @liveloveloulou said “Sometimes I am unable to cry even when I feel sad. One of the tricks that helps me release that emotion safely is watching a tear-jerker—movie or television show, it really doesn’t matter. Somehow someone else’s sadness helps the feeling be released carefully and without force and always makes me feel better.”
  • @caraglow Practical Magic. “It’s my go-to. It always makes me think of my twin sister. She has always understood my illness. 💕”
  • @kristinchronicles “Watching the TV show Grey’s Anatomy actually helps me. Somehow observing how others cope with trauma despite a high-pressure, exhausting job is both inspirational and comforting. I think it adjusts my perspective and enables me to see how the positive and negative forces of life play a role in everything which helps me cope with my own negative experiences & emotions.”
  • @murmaderose Mrs. Doubtfire is my hands-down favorite flick because it makes me laugh every single time and I know almost every line!

Additional reporting by Carolyn Fagan

 

Last Updated: Mar 18, 2019