Psychologists’ Top Rated Self-Help Films

Psychologists’ Top Rated Self-Help Films

Films 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”. For many, movies are not only emotional but also habitual, accessible, and fun.

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%.

The Films

The list below 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).

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)


John C. NorcrossJohn C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP
Professor of Psychology and Distinguished University Fellow at the University of Scranton
Editor of Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session
Clinical Psychologist in Part-Time Practice


*The compilation of  films on these pages were collected from Self-Help That Works: Resources to Improve Emotional Health and Strengthen RelationshipsWe are indebted to the authors, including John C. Norcross, PhD, Linda F. Campbell, PhD, John M. Grohol, PsyD, John W. Santrock, PhD, Florin Selagea, MS, and Robert Sommer, PhD, as well as the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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Posted by on Dec 12, 2013 in Abuse, Anger Management, Autism Spectrum, Building Resilience, Depression, Facing Death & Dying, Grief, LGBT, Marriage & Family, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Stress | 0 comments