Choosing Movies to Support Recovery from Depression
I am always dismayed when a depressed person I am working with tells me that they are staying up late watching thrillers, horror films or intensely tragic dramas. Besides reviewing the impact on their sleep habits and health, I will generally try to walk them through why they are making the choice to watch something that stirs up intense negative emotions at a time when they are already struggling with feelings of sadness, worry and hopelessness. I also worry about my patients who read multiple newspapers and watch several news programs each day, for many of the same reasons. When I was in high school I took a very basic computer programming class, and one of the precepts we learned was “garbage in, garbage out.” I don’t know enough about computer programming to know if this is still true, but I believe it is definitely true of the human psyche. What we put into our minds absolutely influences what we are thinking about, and what we think about influences what we feel.
Which is not to say that I think thrillers, horror films, tragedies or the news are intrinsically bad things. If you are a generally psychologically healthy person then you can probably watch almost anything (once in a while, anyway) and at worst suffer a bad night’s sleep. For many people it can be fun to be scared within an environment you know is safe. It can feel cathartic to weep over a tragic movie ending. This type of movie watching is a form of play. However if you are struggling with fear, sadness, anger and worry already this is probably not a healthy form of play for this period of your life. Media in our culture is designed to draw you in, to rile up your emotions and offer you an experience, albeit a vicarious one. When you are suffering illness, you need to choose emotional experiences that will support your wellness and counteract your illness. Media experiences are among the few emotional experiences in your life that you can actually choose for yourself, so it makes sense to use media as a tool to improve your well-being.
Which then leads to the question of what might be good to watch. What types of movies would be helpful to a person with depression? I actually find this a harder question in some ways, since the movies that make me happy might not have the same effect on someone else. But I’ve come up with a few guiding principles. The first is to talk to your own friends and family for recommendations; use them to pre-screen what you’re going to watch. Ask them what movies they might recommend and then ask them why. Ask them for a synopsis, even; don’t worry about plot spoilers. Most of the fun in the movie isn’t the suspense of what will happen; otherwise movies based on books wouldn’t be so wildly popular. The fun of the movie is seeing the story played out in a realistic way that invites you into the experience. A second recommendation is to look for movies with happy endings. Children’s movies are usually good for this, and often have surprisingly good storytelling. A good children’s movie will be just as much if not more fun for an adult than it will be for a child. If you can’t stand cartoons, though, there are certainly plenty of movies billed for adults that have positive endings. A third principle is to look for things that are funny; both movies billed as comedies and movies that are telling a story in a humorous way. Laughter is hard to come by when you are feeling down so if you can find it through media you’ll be better off.
All of the above also applies to books, for those who are big readers. For someone who loves to read and is good at it, reading is an experience that is often very close to cinematic, with scenes and images playing on the wide-screen of the mind. So book choice when depressed should also follow the guidelines of prescreening through friends, seeking happy endings, and finding as much humor as possible. I would also include TV shows and video games as media that are intensely emotionally engaging and therefore require thought and care in choosing the particulars. There isn’t any evidence that watching particular movies or reading particular books will cure depression, I am sorry to say. If you are suffering depression none of this advice will address your illness; you need to work with a trained, experienced therapist and possibly also a physician for that. However, I do believe this advice can help prevent you from making things worse for yourself while you are in the treatment and recovery process.
What are your favorite movies?
What movies cheer you up or help you feel happier or more hopeful?
What movies would you recommend to a friend who was feeling depressed?