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Top Ten Movies Every Aspiring Psychologist Should See

Movies and Characters Who Make Psychology Entertaining

If your goal for the new year is to catch up on movies, that’s cool…but if you want to do more, it might be time to look into a new degree!

By Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D

“If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” said the great filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, many years ago. Movies have much to offer the profession of psychology, teaching the viewer about what it means to suffer, to succeed, to express strength, and to rise above challenges. Any good student would be wise to also look for misconceptions of not only their future profession (films are infamous for inaccurate portrayals of psychologists) but also for misconceptions that stigmatize people who have mental illness or who suffer in some way.

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All students of psychology should closely study films that portray suffering, illness, and disorder, as well as films that exhibit the triumph of resilience, achievement, and character strengths and virtues.

Here are a few films to pay attention to . . .

Student Studying

  • A Beautiful Mind (2001): Ron Howard’s brilliant film not only educates the viewer about schizophrenia but ingeniously brings the viewer to empathize – and to a degree – experience the confusing pain of schizophrenia, as portrayed by Russell Crowe as mathematics genius, John Nash.
  • Memento (2000): Another film that ingeniously brings the viewer a close-up experience of someone who is suffering, in this case a man struggling with retrograde amnesia.
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): For a generation of students new to psychology, this film offers a slice of their profession’s history, as seen in the barbaric and controlling treatment of patients at a psychiatric hospital.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Regarded by the American Film Institute as depicting the greatest hero in American cinema, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), an attorney who defends a Black man accused of rape. Heroes and exemplars portrayed in films can serve as powerful motivators in treatment.
  • Ordinary People (1980) and Good Will Hunting (1997): while not perfect portrayals of psychologists (it is unethical to choke your client!), Judd Hirsch and Robin Williams play empathic and motivating therapists that educate and inspire their clients and the viewer.
  • Life is Beautiful (1998): Italian film that shows us the extremes of what humans are capable of – the horrors of Nazism as well as tremendous creativity, humor, and sacrifice.
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994): one of the most popular films ever made, perhaps due to the ease an individual can relate to the story of a man wrongfully imprisoned but never giving up hope. Since most clients seeking psychology services are seeking hope, this is a great film to recommend as a treatment adjunct.
  • The Hours (2003): interweaving story of three women, played by Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman, from different generations that serves as a useful teaching tool on mood disorders, suicide, and coping behaviors.
  • American Beauty (1999). It’s difficult to not be inspired by this Oscar-winning film. It is a rhapsody of mindfulness, finding beauty in each moment, and the possibility in every human being for change. If you do not enjoy this film the first time around, take another viewing and do as the alternate title for the film suggests – “look closer.”

Dr. Ryan M. Niemiec (ryan at viacharacter.org) is a licensed psychologist and international speaker. He is Education Director of VIA Institute on Character (www.viacharacter.org). Ryan is co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths (2008), which discusses movies that portray each of the universal character strengths classified by psychologists. Ryan is also co-author of Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology (2010), which discusses films that portray each of the major psychological disorders.