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Superhero Therapy: Helping Clients Cope with Ongoing Global Trauma

Superhero Therapy: Helping Clients Cope with Ongoing Global Trauma

The first-time l realized that something was wrong was when everything fell apart. My family and I had just immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, and I entered middle school. 

Starting seventh grade as 12-year-old, awkward preteen is hard enough. And as the new kid, one who didn't speak English and was often absent due to chronic illness from being exposed to Chernobyl radiation disaster, I made an easy target for bullying. 

Having learned about my radiation exposure, some kids would taunt me, “Are you contagious?” or “Do you glow in the dark?” 

No one in my middle school talked about mental health. And so, I erroneously believed I was the only one going through depression, panic attacks and PTSD, except that I didn't have the vocabulary, in English, Ukrainian, or any other language to explain what I was going through. I didn't know what intergenerational trauma was, I didn't know what child abuse was, or that I was going through either. For years, I thought that everything I was going through was somehow my fault and that l was alone in my experience.

But then everything changed when I got my first summer job working at a movie theater. I was sixteen, and although I was fluent in English by then, I still lacked the emotional vocabulary to express my experiences.

"Tell your parents you'll be home late on Thursday," my manager told me one week in mid-July. "We are all going to watch the midnight screening of the X-Men."

"X-Men?" I asked, feeling apprehensive. "I don't know about that. Isn't that a superhero film?"

"Don't judge it before you've seen it," my manager said.

By the time Thursday midnight rolled around, I regretted agreeing to go. What if I hate it? Do I have to pretend to like it because my manager likes it? My heart was pounding in my chest, and I wiped my clammy hands on my gray-and-black uniform for the eighth time that hour.

"Enjoy!" My manager smiled at our entire team.

I nodded and turned to the screen.

The movie opened in Poland in 1944 as a little boy, Erik Lehnsherr, is being separated from his parents near the entrance to a concentration camp.

I gasped, feeling as if I was watching my family history on the giant screen. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and seeing this fictional scene made me realize the depth of my trauma for the first time. As the film continued, I saw characters develop mutations and superpowers after exposure to radiation. Seeing this, made me rethink my own experience of being a Chernobyl survivor. After years of thinking of myself as a victim, I realized for the first time that I was a survivor.

The film touched on many topics—prejudice, the unfairness of the Registration Act (forcing people to register based on their genetic make-up or heritage), and the violence that can come out of "us vs. them" attitudes. It also touched on how lonely we might feel if we are labeled as "the other," as well as the importance of Chosen Families.

I felt like I was watching a metaphorical depiction of my life on the silver screen.

Every moment - relatable, as if the writers examined the depth of my emotions and showed me a depiction of a world in which I belonged.

As I looked around the completely sold-out theater, I realized that there was not a dry eye in the audience. Everyone was as engrossed in the film as l was. And even though most people in that theater didn't share the same family history I did, it didn't matter. We all knew what it was like to be "othered," to be bullied, or to be treated with prejudice. 

To feel lonely. So excruciatingly lonely. 

Because underneath it all, we all want the same thing—to be valued and to belong.

And it was because of this film that l realized that we could use fiction as a vehicle for telling our truth. I realized that too often, we believe that to "be strong" means to act like an android, failing to realize that it is our humanness that generates our greatest strength. It was because of this film that I signed up for my first ever psychology course in high school and continued along the same path ever since. 

I now specialize in using fiction in helping clients recover from PTSD and complex PTSD. I use stories to help my clients understand that their trauma might be their origin story, but it does not define them. I incorporate the client's favorite stories into treatment to help clients become their own version of superhero in real life (IRL), as a way of fostering posttraumatic growth.

This method of incorporating your client's favorite books, movies, TV shows and video games into treatment to help clients to become more resilient and develop posttraumatic growth is called superhero therapy (ST). ST is intended for clients of all ages (children, teens, and adults alike), though this workshop will focus primarily on how to utilize ST for upper teen and adult clients. 

And the best part is—you don't have to be the expert in popular culture. Your client is the expert. All you need to be is open-minded and curious.

Capes are optional.

Janina Scarlet, PhD

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, author, and a full-time geek. A Ukrainian-born refugee, she survived Chernobyl radiation and persecution. She immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with her family and later, inspired by the X-Men, developed Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Dr. Scarlet is the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award by the United Nations Association for her work on Superhero Therapy. Her work has been featured on Yahoo, BBC, NPR, Sunday Times, CNN, CW, ABC, Huffington Post, The New York Times, Forbes, the Nerdist, BuzzFeed, and many other outlets. She currently works at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management in San Diego. She authored Superhero Therapy, Harry Potter Therapy, Therapy Quest, Dark Agents, Super-Women, Supernatural Therapy, as well as numerous contributions to Star Wars Psychology, Star Trek Psychology, Wonder Woman Psychology, Supernatural Psychology and many other books.

More by Dr. Scarlet

Opinions and viewpoints expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of CE Learning Systems.

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