One of the unique powers of animation is that it can help us access the unconscious. Used as a mental health tool, therefore, it can be extremely powerful. The ability of animation to reach deep into that repository of symbols, signs and pre-language perceptions we all carry in deep memory is unique to this medium.

Animation can achieve this because the world it shows us is fluid, magical and unconstrained by our knowledge of how things are ‘meant’ to behave. In an animation, we can fly, teacups can talk and anxiety can be an octopus hugging us in my most widely viewed two-minute animation. The visual metaphor often evokes strong emotional reactions from the viewer, and can begin the process of healing.

“The creative process and healing are two aspects of the same mystery, and both depend on the same psychic energy. The healing of the psyche requires the same kind of animation and imagination that the creative process requires.”
Carl Jung
This visual world is the world we all inhabited before language, one that had no rules and where everything was possible. Before language, there were not even discrete ‘things’. The world of ‘things’ becomes established through language. The baby doesn’t know where its own body ends and its mother’s body begins, because it has not yet named them as different.  In animation, the thingness of things can be given up again; we can return to that un-boundaried state where bodies merge and everything is pure perception, feeling and desire.

This power of animation to take us back to an earlier state of being has three therapeutic advantages:

  1. We are learning at our fastest in that period before we have acquired language. Because animation evokes this early stage of life, it has a huge pedagogic advantage, lulling us out of language and into a feeling state with intense learning potential.
  2. It allows the transmission of ideas that are not robbed of their immediate perceptual reality by being constrained by language. So, for example, the cold, grey cloud of depression is no longer a language metaphor but something immediately seen and felt.
  3. This ‘reaching back’ which animation can achieve reconnects us with our own individual unconscious desires, fears and dilemmas. Anxiety, depicted as an octopus, makes you cry or laugh, and makes you feel protective; perhaps for the first time you realise that anxiety was protecting you, and you should protect it.

This reconnection with the unconscious makes animation similar to the world of dream and phantasy, both of which are common tools for psychotherapy. If dreams and phantasy are symbolic representations of our hidden desires, fears and dilemmas, then animation is the perfect medium for both accessing and representing these.

Animation does not show you a flat photographic picture of the world but, more powerfully, a deeply felt experience of it. The octopus of anxiety looks sad when we try to get rid of it. And so our perception of anxiety changes, all without words, without presenting an explicit theory, and yet intensely understood.

The internal world of humans changes when, as young children, we begin to acquire language. Language makes the world a more comprehensible, less magical place, with defined rules and boundaries. While this offers us undoubted safety and control, it also limits our experience. Synaesthesia is the paradigm case of a breakdown in the normal language order: the taste of coffee should not evoke the sound of violins, and sadness cannot be yellow. Yet in the pre-language phase all these rules are moot, just as in a dream. And animation can capture this freedom.

While, to quote Jaques Lacan, ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’, it is not limited to language. The unconscious uses symbolic forms, like a language, but is free to break the rules of what Michel Foucault calls the order of things.  Animation, likewise, can convey ideas symbolically – in the form of language – but is free to break the rules of the order of things.

In this way, animation frees our imagination and keys into our dream world. Real-life video, on the other hand, is very similar to our language-world interpretation of our surroundings; it is the conscious, compared to animation’s unconscious.

Using Freud’s formulation of the unconscious, conscious and pre-conscious (that area of our psyche that can be brought into consciousness), we can see how animation can help us bring unconscious material into the pre-conscious. Therapeutic work using animation aims to take this newly conscious material and walk with the client to make it meaningful.

Because we all instinctively recognise animation as taking us back to an earlier iteration of ourselves, we find it inherently soothing – lulling, even – and that state of charmed innocence is the most open to learning. So animation not only gives us symbolic access to our unconscious but puts us into a state to receive it.

A parallel to the power of animation can be found in music. Music is a highly structured symbolic form which expresses meaning but without language. It, too, can lull us into a receptive state in seconds and it, too, has the power to transform our feelings from happy to sad or from sad to uplifted, apparently effortlessly.

In another parallel, music can have lyrics, just as an animation can have a voice-over. In each case, the magic is achieved by the synthesis. In the case of animation, we might say the visual field connects us to the pre-language self, and the voice-over reunites us with our adult self.

The use of animation in therapy is being explored for the first time, and these are preliminary conclusions. However, the clinical evidence for the efficacy of animation is clear.

“I realise for the first time my anxiety is not an illness: it’s me. It’s my early self protecting me. And I love the octopus! But – as the video says – maybe my adult me can thank the child and take control.”
Finally, since the medium of animation can be viewed privately and anonymously especially via social media, it’s the ideal medium to reach people who may be ‘isolating’ as with alcohol use disorder. The ubiquity of both social media and mobile phones means access to peer reviewed support can be made without any of the social stigma a person may otherwise feel. Finally, voice over led animation can be quickly translated and revoiced to target people and communities for whom English is not their first language (e.g. addicts) may also avoid stigma.

Benefits of animation

  • Animation is accessible, especially via social media, and completely free to air for people who require it (via mobile phones).
  • Animation can reach cohorts who struggle to read and write, eg those with a neurodivergence (20% of the population) and/or SEND (15% of the population).
  • Animation can be translated to reach people for whom English is not the first language.
  • Waiting times for CAMHS and community mental health services is typically months – from script to screen, an animation can be created in two weeks, making it ideal for ‘disaster’ work.
  • Animation voiceovers can be quickly translated and revoiced in any language at a rough cost of only £1000.
  • While the initial animation can cost about £10k, subsequent digital copies are completely free (unlike print). Small amendments to ‘end slates’ to, for example, localise helpline numbers cost very little, so one trauma video can be used 10,000 times nationally at pretty much no extra cost.
    • Animation works brilliantly across all social media channels so it’s instantly and freely accessible and provides a ‘language’ for the person and their caregivers to understand what’s going on.
  • Still images can be taken from the animation and used within other collateral. For example, a dozen still images can be laid out in front of a child, enabling them to choose which image from the animation spoke to them (a good way to introduce tricky subjects, eg sexual abuse).