'Film can be a powerful tool for mental health'

Watching and producing films helps pupils to understand their emotions and protect their wellbeing, writes Jane Fletcher

Jane Fletcher

Watching films can help pupils to look after their mental health

Mental wellbeing is a broad and complex subject that affects every classroom. Despite a greater openness in society to talk about it, there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems; studies show that over half of young people believe anyone their age diagnosed with a mental illness would be treated differently and lose friends. 

Film starts a conversation in a way that few other media can, and can be a useful tool for helping young people explore their feelings and broach difficult subjects. It encourages people to talk about issues that they may feel uncomfortable with at arm’s length, and evokes a response without having to push. Using film can help to develop emotional understanding and resilience, while the act of filmmaking itself can provide a powerful means of self-expression and creative outlet.  

There is an abundance of documentaries, animations and feature films in which mental health and related issues like bullying, addiction and sexual identity are central themes. Using characters and situations in films provides young people with a way of discussing topics and issues in a non-personal, non-judgmental way, and can increase their knowledge and understanding. Watching short films made by individuals who have struggled with their mental health develops empathy and helps other young people in a similar situation feel less isolated.

Films help students to express emotions

When you plan to watch a film in class, take five minutes before to ask students to consider what mental wellbeing means to them individually. Afterwards, have a discussion using the following questions:

  1. What was the biggest challenge that the central character faced in terms of their mental wellbeing? What helped them to overcome this?
  2. How did film try to convey the characters’ emotional and social difficulties? Which techniques were used? How successful do you think this was? 
  3. How did the characters go about getting help with their emotional and social difficulties? What advice would you have given them?
  4. How often do you see people with mental health difficulties represented on screen? How are they depicted? What might be the effect of this be on the viewer?

Encouraging young people to practise mindfulness, particularly when facing changing and challenging situations like exams or transitioning from primary to secondary, is another way to help them to maintain good mental health, and, again, film lends itself perfectly to this.  

The act of film-watching itself can be used to help students develop greater awareness of their senses, thoughts and feelings – skills associated with mindfulness – so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, they're better equipped to cope with them. "Sound On Vision Off", for example, invites students to watch a clip without the visuals and just focus on the sounds, first without judgement or applying meaning to what they can hear, then again with attention to decode the different sounds and what might be making them. Paying close attention to a film still, describing all the elements they can see in it – characters, setting, lighting, colour, props, etc – and inferring what might be happening in the story at that time is another way of focusing the mind on the present moment. Watching a film or clip and considering the different reactions a character might have in a given situation, and the respective consequences, enables students to consider how emotions affect thoughts and, therefore, action, with a range of possible consequences.

Providing resources and training to enable schools and young people take part in filmmaking and showcase their work is a key aspect of Into Film’s activities; for example, we recently launched Moving Minds – a filmmaking project supporting 200 young people to make their own short films on the theme of mental health and wellbeing.  

Participating in filmmaking – be it a simple project using phones or tablets, or a more involved venture involving proper equipment – gives young people the chance to have a creative voice and to contribute and feel part of something worthwhile. Filmmaking also enables them to express things that can sometimes be difficult to talk about.     

For a simple classroom filmmaking activity, you could also ask students to create a storyboard about someone with mental health difficulties who is unable to access the help they need, using the following guide questions: 

  1. What barriers do they face?
  2. How do they overcome these?
  3. Who or what helps them? Are they successful?

However you decide to use film, it is an effective means of encouraging and empowering young people to talk more openly about good mental health, and we need to continue facilitating these invaluable conversations.

Jane Fletcher is the director of learning at Into Film, an educational charity

Free screenings of films linked to mental wellbeing such as Wonder; My Life As A Courgette; Whitney; McQueen: I, Tonya; Bohemian Rhapsody; Love, Simon; Searching; and Moonlight, supported by teaching resources, will be on offer at The Into Film Festival 2018 – the world’s largest free film festival for young people – running from November 7-23 in venues throughout the UK.  For programme details and to book tickets, click here.

For information about Into Film or to set up a free Into Film Club for access to thousands of films and resources, click here. 

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Jane Fletcher

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