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How to Choose and Watch Films with Your Mental Health in Mind

A packed theater of people staring at a blank movie screen

The world of cinema is a fascinating place. Film allows us to experience a snippet of life we may not otherwise be exposed to—it can make us laugh and cry, feel the shock of horror, and the joy of surprise. Film can be an escape from our own reality, and a way to explore the world from another perspective. Every movie can impact us in a unique way—and will influence each of us differently. As acclaimed American filmmaker Nia Dacosta says, “I just want to tell good stories in ways that will shine a light on lives rarely seen on screen, because stories can push humanity forward.”

The Power of Film

Film is an amazing opportunity to be entertained, enlightened, and challenged, ranging from family-friendly fun to thought-provoking commentary and heart-wrenching exposés. And while we may be able to glean some information from a plot summary, we may not really know what a film is about or how it may affect us. Sometimes, certain scenes or topics may cause us anxiety or distress.

Here's an example: I remember when a film called the “Pursuit of Happyness” came to my local theater in 2006. At the time, I was a newly graduated social worker, providing in-home support to families involved with child protective services in an urban community. Many of the families I worked with were limited-income, single-parent households focused on day-to-day survival. 

When my friends heard about the film, they told me how amazing it was and that we had to go see. My first thought was, why? Don’t I already see families struggling every day? I believed movies were made to escape work, not remind me of it. Needless to say, I bawled my eyes out for much of the movie. In this instance, I knew what I was getting myself into and still chose to attend (and luckily thought to bring extra tissues). But what if I hadn’t known the plot ahead of time? Would I have walked away carrying more than a pocket full of crumpled, mushy yuck? The emotional toll could have been far greater. 

Making the Best Choice

When we watch a film, we choose another life to step into, even for a few moments. Just like in reality, we want to be wise about the lives we lead. This doesn’t mean that we shy away from what may be hard, but it does mean we should be cautious. Whether it’s the Sundance Film Festival program guide, Academy Award contenders, or a night of Netflix, we are always faced with choices. Here are some tips on making that choice intentionally with your well-being in mind.  

  1. Check in with yourself. Are there topics that just hit too close to home? Often, these can be the subjects that affect us the most on the big screen.
  2. Ask yourself what experience you’re hoping to get from a film. Are you looking for a joyful story that reminds you of the good in the world? Do you want to learn about the life of someone completely different from you? Are you looking to be educated, enraged, or feel the poignant pull of heartbreak?
  3. Give yourself permission to say no. If you aren’t emotionally ready to see the atrocities of sex trafficking or the impact of having an incarcerated parent, then it is OK to say, “Maybe another time” or “I’ll wait to see it from the safety of my couch.”

When the Camera Stops Rolling

If you do end up seeing a film that resonates strongly with you, you may feel emotional and overwhelmed. There are many ways to take care of yourself in these moments. 

  1. Focus on your body. Take some deep breaths and find ways to ground yourself in your body, maybe by placing your hand on your heart and diaphragm as you breathe. Remind yourself that despite whatever’s on screen, you’re safe here.  
  2. Seek support. If you’ve attended a film with company, this could be an opportunity to connect on your shared experience. You could even take a moment to talk to a stranger about how hard it was to experience what you did. It is OK to feel the way you feel. Just take care of yourself and each other when you do.

Amanda McNab, LCSW

Jan 20, 2024 9:51 AM