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Signature Course Spotlights Mental Health Through Movies

The course packet for Movies and Mental Health with Daniel Johnston memoribilia

Mental health can be a difficult subject to talk about. The pandemic brought conversations about the importance of mental health and seeking help into the mainstream, but a public spotlight on the subject doesn’t necessarily make it easier to discuss. Signature Course professor Aaron Rochlen’s class “Movies and Mental Health” uses movies as the starting point for those conversations.

“Movies allow us to step out of our daily lives and struggles and immerse ourselves into storylines and complex characters for a few hours,” Rochlen said. “Watching films also provides an opportunity to learn and reflect on our own lives, as well as the connections and parallels we may have with featured characters. Learning about psychology and mental health through film is far more memorable and entertaining than through traditional textbooks, articles, and academic videos.”

Rochlen began the fall semester with a screening of “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” a documentary about an often mythologized artist and musician. Johnston, born and raised in West Virginia, rose to folk-hero status as a musician and visual artist in Austin, all while struggling with mental health issues. Students were able to see their own familiar surroundings depicted in the movie, as much of its runtime is devoted to Johnston’s years in Austin trying to make it in the music industry while passing out handmade cassettes from his job at the McDonald’s in the Dobie Center.

Tom Gimbel speaks to the class in the Union Theater

The screening was introduced by Tom Gimbel, Johnston’s onetime manager and current general manager of Austin City Limits TV. He told stories from his first chance encounter with Daniel Johnston leading to 26 years as Johnston’s manager and through his more recent creation of the Hi, How Are You Foundation.

“The foundation had its origins here at UT. When my wife was in college here, she had severe depression and anxiety. She was prescribed a medication to help her and was very ashamed about taking the medication,” Gimbel said. “She realized that when she started sharing her story openly, it made her feel better. It was cathartic for her, and it was also this opening up in others when she shared. That’s when it really became special. That’s what we wanted to do with the Hi, How Are You project, is to encourage people to have an open dialogue around mental health and to practice some proactive things that we can do on a daily basis to promote our mental wellbeing.”

Signature Courses are designed to introduce college-level learning to every first-year student at The University of Texas at Austin. The courses are taught by top faculty members and introduce research methods and critical thinking skills that students use throughout their college careers. They also showcase the gems of the university like the historic Union Theater. Rochlen’s class will screen movies, including “Rain Man,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and “The Others,” in the theater throughout the semester.

A student discusses their thoughts on the movie following the screening

“We often need a little help finding “gems” and sharing their significance,” Rochlen said. “This is why integrating gems into the curriculum of Signature Courses is so special and unique. We have been able to experience two gems, the specialness of the Texas Union Theater and the significance of arguably the most recognizable mural in the city, Jeremiah the Innocent.”

Following the screening, each member of the class briefly discussed their thoughts on the documentary. The class then walked the short distance to Johnston’s mural on 21st Street on the side of what was originally the Sound Exchange record store. The class toasted Daniel Johnston with the artist’s favorite drink, Mountain Dew, almost two years to the day after his death.

Aaron Rochlen's Signature Course at Daniel Johnston's mural