filmcoverFilms are one of the most influential forms of mass information and communication.  Their impact and resonance stretch across nationalities, generations, and genders.  Psychologist Kenneth Gergen (1991) asserts, “Films can catapult us rapidly and effectively into states of fear, anger, sadness, romance, lust, and aesthetic ecstasy -- often within the same two-hour period.  It is undoubtedly true that for many people film relationships provide the most emotionally wrenching experiences of the average week” (pp. 56-57).  For many, movies are not only emotional but also habitual, accessible, and fun (Norcross et al., 2012).

However, identifying particular therapeutic films poses challenges for psychologists.  Thousands of movies distort mental illness and recommend untested, if not discredited, treatments (Wedding et al., 2010).  Such media framing is disconcerting because mental health literacy is negligible, and films are a primary source of information for Americans.

Several books identify movies pertaining to particular mental disorders (e.g., Hesley & Hesley, 2001; Wedding et al., 2010), but few present evidence-based direction or professional consensus.  Existing research on self-help films is limited by either small sample sizes or small numbers of movies (Dermer & Hutchings, 2000).

Our three studies on movies for therapeutic purposes canvassed thousands of psychologists on hundreds of potential films.  Our most recent study, conducted on National Registrants in 2011, was designed to identify practitioner-recommended films for self-help purposes.  We sought to obtain expert consensus in order to inform professionals about effective films, in the absence of any systematic research on their effectiveness.

The Surveys

Over the past two decades, our research group has conducted 12 national surveys of psychologists on self-help resources.  The resources evaluated were books, autobiographies, and films.  The surveys were alike in methodology and samples.  We sent surveys to doctoral-level psychologists in the United States.  Responding psychologists rated self-help resources with which they were familiar on the same 5-point, Likert-type scale:  +2 extremely good, +1 moderately good, 0 average, -1 moderately bad, and -2 extremely bad.

In the latest four studies, we sent SurveyMonkey links to 8,904 members of the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology.  Following several follow-ups, 1,306 psychologists responded, a response rate of 15%.

As shown in Table 1, respondents were all doctoral-level licensed psychologists, 80% of whom were members of the APA and 90% of whom reported their race/ethnicity as Caucasian/EuroAmerican. Responding Registrants were predominantly employed in private practice.  Their theoretical orientations were prototypically eclectic/integrative, cognitive, and psychodynamic.

This article, the first of three, focuses on the results from the film surveys.

The Films

Table 2 presents in rank order the 75 top-rated films that received a minimum of 30 psychologist ratings.  All films received mean ratings of at least 1.06, reflecting a consensus between “provides good advice; can be helpful” and “outstanding; among the best in category.”
Leading the list were Temple Grandin (autism and Asperger’s), Iris (dementia/Alzheimer’s), Milk(gay, lesbian, bisexual issues), and Ordinary People (suicide & death and grieving).  The categories of the most highly regarded movies were substance abuse, death and grieving, and adult development.  Many of the films were commercial successes, winning best picture awards.  The complete list of 324 films covering 31 disorders and life challenges can be found in Self-Help that Works (Norcross et al., 2012).

Recommending an effective movie requires timing and clinical sensitivity.  Clinicians can watch select films so they can explain the therapeutic process effectively to patients.  Psychologists can be attentive to clients’ likes and dislikes and prescribe accordingly.  Clients suffering from debilitating psychiatric disorders or trauma should be cautioned of potential negative consequences. Clinicians can also encourage clients to identify but not to overgeneralize or overidentify with recommended films (Hesley et al., 2001).

In summary, identifying practitioner-recommended movies has distinct advantages for self-help and clinical purposes.  Movies are a powerful way to educate and engage the public, students, and patients.  Meritorious films typically depict therapeutic experiences, increase mental health awareness, generate inspiration, and stimulate self-reflection.  Rather than relying on box-office results or layperson reviews, 1,060 psychologists established a consensus.  We hope for a day when controlled research is conducted on the effectiveness of self-help films.  Until then, expert consensus can guide the public and professionals in selecting films that portray accurate mental health representations, credible treatments, and hopeful outcomes.

Table 1. Descriptive Summary of Responding Registrants in the Four Latest Studies
Study 9 (N=330)%
Study 10 (N=368) %
Study 11 (N=303)%
Study 12 (N=305)%




Theoretical orientation













Systems/family systems



Employment setting

Private practice

64 63 55 56

General hospital

5 5 6 5

Outpatient clinic/HMO

8 7 6 5

Psychiatric hospital

3 2 5 5


4 7 10 8

Medical school

3 4 3 4


13 12 15 16
Table 2. Psychologists' Top-Rated Self-Help Films

1. Temple Grandin (autism & Asperger’s)
2. Iris (dementia/Alzheimer’s)
3. Milk (gay, lesbian, bisexual issues)
4. Ordinary People (suicide/death & grieving)
5. I Never Sang for My Father (men’s issues)
6. On Golden Pond (aging)
7. Billy Elliot (men’s issues)
8. Away from Her (dementia/Alzheimer’s)
9. The Joy Luck Club (families & stepfamilies)
10. The Squid and the Whale (divorce)
11. The Trip to the Bountiful (adult development)
12. The Soloist (schizophrenia)
13. In the Valley of Elah (posttraumatic stress disorder)
14. The Lost Weekend (substance abuse)
15. Days of Wine and Roses (substance abuse)
16. Angels in America (gay, lesbian, bisexual issues)
17. The Notebook (dementia/Alzheimer’s)
18. Stand by Me (teenagers & parenting)
19. Life as a House (families & stepfamilies)
20. Requiem for a Dream (substance abuse)
21. Corrina, Corrina (death & grieving)
22. October Sky (men’s issues)
23. A Beautiful Mind (schizophrenia)
24. The Doctor (adult development)
25. Children of a Lesser God (people skills)
26. Karen Carpenter Story (eating disorders)
27. The Fighter (substance abuse)
28. Kramer vs. Kramer (divorce)
29. The Color Purple (abuse)
30. Family Man (families & stepfamilies)
31. A Woman Under the Influence (depression)
32. Dead Poets Society (parenting)
33. Brokeback Mountain (gay, lesbian, bisexual issues)
34. The Great Santini (narcissistic personality disorder)
35. It’s a Wonderful Life (adult development)
36. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (autism & Asperger’s & families)
37. Torch Song Trilogy (sexuality)
38. My Name is Bill W. (substance abuse)
39. The Bucket List (death & grieving)
40. Sunset Boulevard (borderline & narcissistic personality disorders)
41. The Accused (posttraumatic stress disorder)
42. Terms of Endearment (families)
43. Fried Green Tomatoes (women’s issues)
44. Searching for Bobby Fischer (child development & parenting)
45. Best Little Girl in the World (eating disorder)
46. Clean and Sober (substance abuse)
47. The Kids Are All Right (marriage & families)
48. A League of Their Own (women’s issues)
49. Bird (schizophrenia)
50. Steel Magnolias (death & grieving)
51. A Bronx Tale (teenagers and parenting)
52. House of Sand and Fog (suicide)
53. Rachel Getting Married (substance abuse)
54. Juno (pregnancy)
55. As Good as It Gets (obsessive compulsive disorder)
56. The Breakfast Club (teenagers and parenting)
57. The Turning Point (women’s issues)
58. Rain Man (families and stepfamilies)
59. In the Bedroom (death & grieving)
60. A River Runs Through It (death & grieving)
61. Fly Away Home (families & stepfamilies)
62. Shine (schizophrenia)
63. Mr. Holland’s Opus (adult development)
64. This Boy’s Life (abuse)
65. Thirteen (teenagers & parenting)
66. Mystic River (abuse)
67. Bowling for Columbine (violent youth)
68. Field of Dreams (men’s issues)
69. Circle of Friends (teenagers & parenting)
70. Little Women (teenagers & parenting)
71. ‘Night, Mother (suicide)
72. Girl, Interrupted (borderline & narcissistic personality disorder)
73. The Hours (depression)
74. Up in the Air (men’s issues)
75. Revolutionary Road (marriage)

For more information on these films, go to


trr_author_alognaVictoria K. Alogna is a senior psychology major at the University of Scranton, where she co-managed the research surveys on which this article is based. She will be pursuing doctoral studies in psychology in the near future.



trr_author_norcrossJohn C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, is Professor of Psychology and Distinguished University Fellow at the University of Scranton, editor of Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, and a clinical psychologist in part-time practice. Dr. Norcross was a member of the National Register Board of Directors from 2002-2009.




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individuals, couples, and families.  American Journal of Family Therapy28, 163-180.
Gergen, K. (1991). The saturated self. New York: Basic Books.
Hesley, J. W., & Hesley, K. G. (2001).  Rent two films and let’s talk in the morning:  Using 
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Norcross, J. C., Campbell, L. M., Grohol, J. M., Santrock, J. W., Selagea, F., & Sommer, R.
(2012). Self-help that works (4th ed.).  New York: Oxford University Press.
Wedding, D., Boyd, M. A., & Niemiec, R. M.  (2010). Movies and mental illness: Using films to 
understand psychopathology (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.