- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

ERIE, Pa. - When psychiatrist Fuat Ulus meets with patients, there is a chance Clint Eastwood will be there, too. Not as a patient but a therapist of sorts.

Dr. Ulus has used Mr. Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character to help patients address chronic anxiety. After all, there probably aren’t many more-anxious situations than when Harry Callahan is confronted with a thug holding a gun to a human shield and threatening to fire.

Of course, Dr. Ulus doesn’t advise patients to deal with their anxiety by brandishing a .44-caliber Magnum and declaring, “Go ahead, make my day.” But watching the scene can spark discussion on coping with anxiety.

He also has used “The Deer Hunter” to help Vietnam veterans open up about post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Ulus is among several therapists who find movies or clips from movies helpful in treating patients.

“Patients are more receptive to discussing issues that are somewhat removed from them, played out by characters on a screen, rather than directly confronting those issues from their own lives,” said Dr. Ulus, who has been using movie therapy for several years.

He recently wrote a guide for therapists interested in using movies, “Movie Therapy, Moving Therapy.” He is developing a weekly movie-therapy program, open to the public, in the Erie area.

“Therapists have used movies for a long time, but in an informal way,” said Birgit Wolz, an Oakland, Calif., therapist who has been using movies in group-therapy sessions for nearly a decade.

In movie therapy, therapists won’t simply advise depressed patients to rent “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“A good comedy is always nice when I don’t feel good, but it’s not going to have much therapeutic value,” Dr. Ulus said.

The assumption that movies can be prescribed to treat a problem can backfire, Miss Wolz said. “If you’re renting a happy movie when you’re sad, it can have the opposite effect” and make a sad person more depressed, she said.

Instead, therapists might use a movie or segment that illustrates a situation or condition that a patient is experiencing — whether the patient realizes it or not. The patient might find it easier to confront his own issue after seeing how someone in a movie handles a similar situation.

“The movies really go to the deeper layers of the consciousness,” Miss Wolz said. “The movies are a catalyst for the experiences people go through.”

John W. Hesley, a therapist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who, along with his wife, Jan G. Hesley, wrote the 1998 book “Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning: Using Popular Movies in Psychotherapy,” has a theory on why a problem that seems overwhelming may be less burdensome after movie therapy.

“You can talk about it sometimes easier if it’s happening to someone else,” he said.

While Dr. Ulus and Miss Wolz say movie therapy is gaining popularity, no one has concrete numbers on its use. A couple dozen people participate in Dr. Ulus’ Internet mailing list on movie therapy.

Pam Willenz, a spokeswoman with the American Psychological Association, said the association doesn’t take positions on treatment types but recognizes film’s use in therapy. The organization also doesn’t track practitioners.

Therapists stress that movie therapy isn’t a treatment in itself. Rather, they say, it is a tool that can be used with other treatments in individual and group settings.

Movies “are metaphors that have emotional truths for people,” said Bernie Wooder, a London psychotherapist who has been using movies for about seven years.

The melding of movies and therapy was natural for Dr. Ulus, 60, a self-described movie buff who says he has seen thousands of films. He emigrated to the United States in 1971 from Turkey, where his mother would take him to see several movies a week when he was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. He said the movies helped him learn American culture.

In a given month, Dr, Ulus might see 50 or 60 movies, including new theater releases, and films he already has seen but from which he hopes to glean a lesson.

While movie therapy may not be widely known, its roots can be traced to bibliotherapy, which uses books in much the same way and was developed in the early 1900s.

“I think movie therapy is a little more colorful and fascinating than bibliotherapy,” Dr. Ulus said.

There’s another benefit, too.

“It’s a whole lot easier to have a patient watch a movie than to read a book,” Mr. Hesley said.

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