As a Seattle-based psychotherapist, Chad Perman saw firsthand how the coronavirus outbreak could affect people’s mental health weeks before it spread throughout the rest of the country. His practice is based in Kirkland, Washington, home of the Life Care Center, the long-term care facility where the outbreak began in the United States.
“My clients and I have had this surreal experience before coronavirus spread nationally, where we knew there’s this place two blocks from us where all these people were dying,” Perman told NBC News.
He said that people were trying to understand and comes to terms with what was happening.
“It didn’t feel normal to go out to the movie theater and watch the latest release and then of course, there came a point where we couldn’t leave our houses to go to the movies or socialize, as is now happening nationally,” he said.
This is why Perman says his services using bibliotherapy and cinematherapy to harness "the healing power of works of art" have become more important than ever.
These types of therapeutic methods, which involve “prescribing” patients works of art to help process and cope with life’s challenges, have been used informally for decades. Bibliotherapy dates back to 1916 — it’s first recorded use was in an article from “The Atlantic” titled “A Literary Clinic” — but cinematherapy is a more recent phenomenon, with Dr. Gary Soloman, a Las Vegas-based practitioner, widely credited with coining the term in his 1995 book “The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch this Movie and Call Me in the Morning.”
While these methods have not yet been fully embraced by the traditional field of psychology, a handful of book and cinema therapists, including Perman, say this type of therapy can help people cope as society is collectively racked with feelings of anxiety about growing diagnoses and death tolls, economic uncertainty and community lockdowns.
“Reading the right book at the right time can make you feel seen,” Rosalie Knecht, a therapist and author of the novels “Who is Vera Kelly?” and “Relief Map,” said in an interview. “The thing about narrative is that it gives a way of thinking of hardship as having a purpose to it, and I think that’s a huge reason why we turn to books and movies, especially in difficult moments.”
What to read and watch
Even as many agree that books, movies, television, podcasts and video games can provide a welcome distraction during the global pandemic — as evinced by the onslaught of lists recommending which media people should consume during quarantine — the volume of options can be overwhelming and sometimes conflicting. Dystopian books and “pandemic literature” like Ling Ma’s “Severance” and Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” have garnered renewed interest during the outbreak, but does reading about plagues run counter to alleviating anxiety?
According to Knecht, not quite.
“People tend to go one or two ways. They’ll either read a bunch of dystopian fiction or they’re going to read something that provides a complete escape,” Knecht said. “There’s no right way. Sometimes it can be helpful to lean into whatever’s scary — it’s like scratching an itch — but for other people that would just compound their anxiety.”
For those readers looking for a diversion from all of the news, Knetcht recommends, “Look Alive Out There,” a collection of essays by Sloane Crosley, which she calls a “humorous reminder of the recent past before the outbreak.”
For those who are interested in leaning into things and reading about plagues, she says they should pick up Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy and “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.” Not only are the books long and immersive, but even though they are set in plague times, they are “far-removed from the current moment,” which she says can be “grounding” for readers and help put things in perspective.
While fiction books are also book therapist Bijal Shah’s prescriptions of choice — she recommends Madeline Miller’s “Circe,” an epic based on Greek mythology, and “A Man Called Ove,” a Swedish novel about a solitary elderly man who finds connection when a family moves into the house next door — Shah said not to discount nonfiction books, particularly those about maintaining mental health in trying times. Among her top picks for clients are “My Age of Anxiety” by Scott Stossel, a memoir chronicling one man’s experience with the disorder and the broader history of the diagnostic category, and Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B,” as it grapples with loss and bereavement.
As for movie options, Perman often finds himself recommending the 2011 film “The Tree of Life,” a movie about a man who tried to make sense of his contentious relationship with his father, while also wrestling with existential questions about life’s meaning and his purpose.
“It’s endlessly interpretive and means different things to different people,” Perman said. “There’s just no way to engage with that movie and not have thoughts, even if the thought is, ‘What is this?’”
He also suggests “Wild Strawberries,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and any of Charlie Kaufman’s movies because they “deal with loneliness and existentialism, which are prevalent themes in society, especially now.”
A potential opportunity for embracing art as a viable form of therapy
Shah, who worked for more than a decade in investment banking before switching to bibliotherapy in 2017, said books are a useful tool because they can illuminate truths that a one-hour therapy session may not be able to.
“I would turn to books to understand a concept better and characters who had been through similar situations would help shed light on my own circumstances,” Shah said. “For example, when it came to discussing boundary setting with my therapist, the one-hour sessions weren’t enough for me, but reading books outside of session would close the gap and make all the difference in terms of me being able to apply the concept in my life.”
Teena Collins, an Oklahoma-based cinematherapist, feels similarly about film’s “ability to allow people to see how problems can be solved in positive and constructive ways.”
“Identifying with a movie character can be very therapeutic and healing,” Collins told NBC News. “Sometimes it is difficult for clients to even identify what issues are causing them discomfort, until they see another person experiencing the same thing. They might be in denial that anything is even disrupting their life.”
Another major benefit of these therapeutic tools, according to Perman, is that while they are more effective when working with a professional, they can also aid those who don’t have access to a therapist. The key, Perman says, is to make sure not just to spend time watching feel-good films — although he says these movies certainly have their place in cinematherapy — but to set aside some time to watch films that inspire you to reflect.
“Right now, there’s a lot of things people have to navigate; we’re adjusting to a whole new way of living,” Perman said. “So I imagine for the most part people are currently understanding cinematherapy in the context of ‘I need something to take my mind off things,’ but I anticipate as this pandemic goes on we’ll need to find more sustainable ways to adapt. People will move out of the ‘I just want something to make me feel good’ and hopefully start using cinematherapy more.”