For three years now, my day job (that is, the one I get paid for) has been in Behavioral Health.
A psych ward.
Now, at my previous facility (I have since moved halfway across the country), I worked first and second shifts, which meant that I had a lot of interaction with patients, something I kind of miss now that I’m a third-shifter. Anyway, on Tuesdays from three to four in the afternoon, there was a group scheduled, but there was no one to lead said group, which resulted in the patients simply sitting in the dayroom and watching a video. There were two problems with this: one, we only had two videos that actually worked and two, any patient who had been there before (and there were a few) or had been there for more than a week had probably already seen both of them. I felt bad for the patients, having to sit through the same two depressing videos over and over again, so I asked if there was something else we could do.
“Sure,” I was told, “you can lead a group.”
Now, it’s important to note at this point that even though I work in psychiatry, I am not a psychiatrist. Nor am I a psych major. Nor have I ever actually taken a psychology course in college. I am, put simply, under qualified.
So, doing a bit of poking around on the old interweb, I came across a term that caught my eye: Cinema Therapy.
Now, the idea of art therapy is not a new one. Using paintings, poems, dance and music in a therapeutic way have been around nearly as long as the field of psychology. Using motion pictures in this way is a more recent concept (as the prevalence of home video has taken off in the last twenty-odd years).
Most therapists who use motion pictures use the whole film. Have a problem with alcoholism? Try 28 Days, Clean and Sober, When A Man Loves A Woman or Days of Wine and Roses. Childhood trauma? Bridge to Terabithia. Family issues? Ordinary People.
You get the idea.
Here was where I hit my first snag.
As I said before, my group was from three to four in the afternoon, which meant I only had an hour, not enough time for a feature film. Showing part one of a film one week only to finish it the next wasn’t going to work either, because what if the patient discharged between now and then, or what if a new patient arrived between parts one and two?
Therefore, I had to use clips, rather than whole features.
In a way, this was liberating, as I could now select from a much wider variety of films (if you’ll note, the titles mentioned above tend to be heavy dramas), in fact, I could use pretty much any scene from any movie so long as I could tie it back to my topic.
Ah, my topics, now that was the next snag.
No point in doing a group on PTSD if no one in the group had PTSD (or worse, only one person did and they felt I was singling them out), or addiction or trauma or suicidal ideations or so on. This was what led to my decision to keep the topics more general (i.e. “Facing Your Fears,” “Turning Negatives into Positives” or “The Power of Positive Thinking”)
And so, the following Tuesday, armed with a DVD and a stack of handouts printed off the internet, I started my first group.
I chose as my first topic “Turning Negatives into Positives.” For the clip, I selected the “nonsense song” from Chaplin’s Modern Times. For those unfamiliar (I pity you, go watch Modern Times), a bit of history: Synchronized sound was introduced in motion pictures in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer (Jolson, not Diamond). Charlie Chaplin, the world’s most famous comic actor and one of the biggest movie stars on Earth, was nervous. Talking meant he would lose not only the American audiences, who viewed him as one of their own (Chaplin was English and spoke with refined accent, having lost his Cockney accent years prior) but also the worldwide audience who could follow, sympathize and laugh with The Little Tramp because pantomime is a universal language. But, by 1936, silent films were breathing their last, so Chaplin had to either get with the times or go away.
His solution was nothing short of brilliant.
In the film, Chaplin’s Little Tramp gets a job as a singing waiter in a restaurant, but, he can never remember the lyrics to the song he’s supposed to sing. Paulette Goddard, as “A Gamin” (his female co-star in the picture) suggests he write the lyrics on his cuffs, which he does. Taking the stage, he does a little dance, sending his cuffs flying to parts unknown. Unsure what to do, he sings the song anyway in an entirely fabricated language. Thus, there was A) no trace of his accent and B) the joke was universal and C) the audience got what they wanted, they heard The Little Tramp’s voice!
I used this clip, along with a bit of impromptu film history for the group, talking to them about how, in their own lives, they could turn negative situations into positives. The group shared numerous examples from their own lives (I won’t go into specifics, as that would violate patient confidentiality and that is No-No number one in the field of psychiatry). And, best of all, the patients told me how much they liked the group and asked if we would do it every day.
I was rather pleased with myself.
In the ensuing weeks, I used The Empire Strikes Back and the teachings of Yoda to illustrate The Power of Positive Thinking. (A patient told me that she had seen that film “hundreds of times” but that message had never hit her before.)
The Black Knight scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail to talk about Denial.
Young Frankenstein showed my patients what it meant to face your fears.
One of my favorites (partially because it’s my favorite movie ever) was Harold and Maude. In the clip, Harold and Maude are talking in a field of daisies. Maude asks, “What kind of flower would you like to be?” Harold replies, “I dunno. One of these maybe,” his rationalization being because they’re all the same. “Oh, but they’re not,” Maude argues, “some are tall, some are short, some are missing petals.” She then holds up a single flower and says, “Most of the world’s problems are because people are this” (points to flower), “but let themselves be treated as that” (points to field of flowers).
I had every patient in the room write, on a small scrap of paper, something about themselves that was unique, and it could be anything, from the city you were born in, to your hobby, to the number of pets you have, to your middle name…anything. Then, every scrap of paper was put in a bucket and I drew the out one at a time, reading them aloud and everyone had to guess who it was. (As we got to the bottom, it got easier to guess who it was, so I cheated and made up trivia.) They loved it. And I loved doing it.
I started this group because I felt bad for the patients, having to sit through the same video over and over again, but as I got into the group I found that I truly enjoyed doing it, more so, I came to realize that I believed what I was teaching. I truly think that movies can help people. Sometimes, it is in the comfort of fiction that we can understand reality.
I heard a story of a 9/11 first responder who, after witnessing the tragic events of that day, did not laugh for months, not even smile…until he watched The Big Lebowski.
A father and his autistic son were swimming in the ocean when the current separated them. To find his son, the father repeatedly yelled, “To infinity” and using his son’s response “and beyond!” was able to locate the boy.
It’s worked with me.
A movie can pull me out of a funk, or help me deal with loss, or remind me that humanity isn’t as doomed as we are often led to believe. As I’ve illustrated above, it doesn’t have to be the powerful, award-winning dramas that change our lives, that illuminate us from within, sometimes it can be something silly, something fantastical or a moment of poignancy in an otherwise forgettable film.
It’s why I love movies. They can be art, they can be entertainment and they can even be therapeutic.