A Hero in Us All, Dr. Scarlet Discusses the Benefits of Superhero Therapy

Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, 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 has written multiple publications on this topic and has given talks domestically and internationally. She is also a member of Pop Culture Hero Coalition. Her book, “Superhero Therapy” released on December 1, 2016 in the U.K. and on August 1, 2017 in the U.S.


What drew you to a career in psychology and science?

” I was always interested in people’s stories. I grew up in Ukraine, where the remnants of WWII are still present to this day. As a small child I was fascinated by elder people’s WWII/Holocaust survival stories. I was fascinated at how someone could survive such severe trauma and about what helped them recover. At the age of 9 I started reading my mother’s psychology books and after moving to the United States I started becoming more involved in sciences, often staying after school or spending my lunch periods in the science lab. When I got to high school I started taking psychology classes and after taking the first one, I was sure that this was the right career for me.”

Why (was) is the superhero genre so life changing for you?

“I was born and raised in Ukraine. At the age of 3 my family and I were exposed to a high degree of radiation from the Chernobyl disaster. As a result, we were all affected. My health is forever changed as a result of this exposure. I am extremely sensitive to weather (e.g., rain) and radiation changes (such as meteor showers). I get extremely ill when these changes occur and in some instances, this can be life-threatening.”

“When my family and I moved to the United States as refugees, I was 12 years old. Some of the kids in middle school teased and bullied me for being “a freak,” being “radioactive.” I was 15 when I saw the first X-Men movie. The X-Men really spoke to me. For the first time, I saw myself on the screen. These characters were mutants, just like me. Many of them were also affected by radiation, and Storm, my favorite of the X-Men, is also connected to the weather, like I am. This was a life changing moment for me because it allowed me to see that I was not a victim of my circumstance. I was a survivor. Seeing X-Men allowed me to take control of my destiny instead of being controlled by my past and inspired me to help others.”

Why do you think the superhero genre is so important to others?

“I think most of us dream of having magical powers or super abilities at some point. I think that many people are looking for a connection, for someone to understand their experiences in order to feel less alone. Humans are social creatures, we want to feel understood and supported. Sometimes it is hard to open up to other people, especially when it comes to mental health. However, finding someone to connect with, whether a real person or a fictional character, can allow us to feel more supported, less judged, and more understood. It can normalize our own experiences and potentially serve as a vehicle for healing. I am hoping that with increased conversations about mental health, we can take away its stigma and allow people to see themselves as the heroes they really are, no matter their mental health struggle.”

What is Superhero Therapy?

“Superhero Therapy involves using pop culture in evidence-based (research-supported) therapy in order to help people manage or recover from depression, anxiety, PTSD, people on autism spectrum, people who struggle with chronic pain, eating disorders, and other mental health struggles by connecting with their hero sense, their core values. Many people might feel held back by their circumstances, such as poverty, physical or mental struggles, or others and might therefore have a hard time connecting with things they really care about, such as their creative work, friends, family, or helping others. Superhero Therapy is designed to help people not only better manage their struggles but to become their own version of a Superhero using the skills and abilities they might already have or learn along the way.”

When is this type of therapy the most useful? Are there specific situations?

“This type of therapy is trans diagnostic, which means it can be applied to any mental health disorder.”

Do people have to be veteran comic book/ superhero fans for this type therapy?

“Not at all. In fact, it is not necessary to use traditional superheroes in this kind of therapy. Characters from fantasy (e.g., Harry Potter), science fiction (e.g., Star Wars) can also be and have been utilized in Superhero Therapy. Neither the therapist nor the client have to be well-versed in comic books in order to benefit from this.”

List 2 of your Favorite superhero/heroines explain why in general and in the context of their psychology.

“My favorite superhero of all time is Storm, from the X-Men. Storm (real name: Ororo Munroe), suffered a devastating loss at the age of 6 when an airplane fell on her house, crushing her parents to death and nearly killing Ororo. Ororo barely got out of the rubble alive. As a result, she later develops severe claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces). However, when her fellow X-Men are in trouble, nothing will stand in her way.”

“Another character I really like talking about is Ron Weasley from Harry Potter. Ron, one of Harry’s best friends, struggles with arachnophobia, fear of spiders. However, as afraid as he is, Ron joins Harry in following the spiders into the Forbidden Forest in order to save their friend, Hermione, after she was petrified by a basilisk. Ron demonstrates truly heroic courage here – he faces his biggest fear in order to save someone he cares about. I’ve used this example with many of my clients when we are working on reducing their phobias in therapy.”

If you would like to learn more about Superhero Therapy, contact Dr. Janina Scarlet Twitter @shadowquill, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Shadow.Scarletl, website at www.superhero-therapy.com, or Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/superherotherapy

Thank you Dr. Scarlet for participating in this interview!

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  1. Wow, this was fascinating to read! I’ve never heard of of Superhero Therapy before, but after reading this article I’m beginning to see how this technique could be effective. As someone who also considers themselves a “full-time geek” it makes sense to me that people can use fictional characters to help them connect to core values, as I experience a similar sort of connection when I discover a character who really speaks to me and who I can consider a role model. I’d love to learn more about the research being conducted on this topic, and especially what the results have been thus far. Though I am wondering, is there an age group or certain demographic of people who find this sort of treatment more effective? Or does it depend simply on the person, regardless of their age? Thank you for sharing this interesting form of therapy!

  2. This article really put a smile on my face. It is so great to know that Superhero Therapy, something I am just finding out about, is being used to help many survivors feel like the strong beings that they are. I love the connection of fictional characters and their abilities to people that have survived, or continue to survive, something life-changing. I can’t wait to see the many ways this unique type of therapy will benefit others; I hope to hear more of it! Finding someone or something you can connect to while struggling with similar battles can have the ability of empowering one, and having a sense of glee. This article is beautifully written, and super informative.

  3. This is a new subject for me and I found it very interesting! I agree that every person needs someone to identify with, a hero that can make us feel less alone and more empowered. However, I think it’s not necessary for your superhero to be a fictional character, it can be someone you’ve met, a friend, a family member, anyone. I think it’s really important to have a superhero to relate to because everyone has their faults and battles to fight but heros remind us that difficulties can be overcome, even if we feel that we can’t do it.

  4. This is AMAZING! This is definitely one of the most unique methods of therapy I’ve ever heard of. I would love to learn more about the process itself, perhaps an interview with one of her past patients or a simple walkthrough of what a typical session is like. I can see this helping a multitude of people, young and old. This is taking “empowerment” to a whole new level!

  5. This is really cool, I love the sound of this therapy! It is definitely worth something to explore further and I do hope more studies related to this come along. I was just thinking if this can help patients with multiple personalities. How would you approach them to help them? Is this even possible? Thank you.

  6. I love the idea that superheroes–or any heroes–are used in therapy. There are often stories of children who relate to superheroes because of disabilities and handicaps, but to actually apply it in therapy is taking it a step further. I also love how it’s not restricted to just superheroes, giving much more freedom and creativity to tailor the therapy. This also reinforces that the arts in whatever form really do help individuals. What a fascinating article!

  7. I would honestly love to be a part of this therapy! Ever since my own personal traumas, I’ve been using similar coping methods actually – and I love finding characters who I can relate to, since my own mental illness is so often villainized by media, it’s nice finding characters with similar traits who are beloved by others. I especially love how it applies to all types of trauma and mental illness – I feel like there’s some real potential in this therapy and I’d love to hear more about it!

  8. “Superhero therapy” is a very intriguing and creative concept to tackle. I really admire how Dr. Scarlet manages to cope with her trauma while helping others deal with their own mental battles. After finishing the article, I am left with much curiosity! I would love to try out a session of “superhero therapy.”

    Overall, the interview resulted with informative answers. However, I really wished she could have shared how successful the therapy has been for some of her patients (keeping confidentially at all times of course). Or at least she could have given an example of qhat a typical session of this therapy consists of (preferably the first session).

    One minor misspelling I stumbled upon was in the answer for the question: “Why (was) is the superhero genre so life changing for you?” You wrote “whether” instead of “weather.” Other than that, great job!

  9. What an amazing concept! To step into politics a bit, this article reflects the need for diversity of experience. If it weren’t for Dr. Scarlett’s own circumstances followed by her arrival in the United States, this creative approach to psychotherapy may not have been.

    As a coping mechanism, I’ve found it helpful to connect with animal totems and to then meditate on their strengths and see them as apart of me. I find it helps with self-advocacy and reaffirming my innate ability to be autonomous. I can definitely see why SuperHero therapy would be an effective treatment!

  10. I’ve never heard of Superhero Therapy before, but it was really interesting to read this interview and get more information about this kind of therapy.
    I really love the therapy can be applied to any mental health disorder and not just a few specific ones.
    As someone who is really into superhero movies, it only makes sense to me that people use fictional characters, who experience the same problems and struggels as one self, as a inspiration or a role model.
    As Dr. Scarlet put it“… most of us dream of having magical powers or super abilities at some point. I think that many people are looking for a connection, for someone to understand their experiences in order to feel less alone.”
    I would love to learn more about this type of therapy, how it works and what the results have been so far.

  11. This is definitely an interesting concept. After all, it isn’t surprising to utilize a super hero for therapeutic causes when we as a species tend to already use heroes and heroic tales for courage or affirmation. Already at a young age humans look up to a few choice people -try to mimic them, see them as heroes, or have their whole world revolve around them.

    It is only natural for offspring to learn that way [depending on the species, of course], and what with humans being this self aware, and to have a sense of self to nurture and develop, a concept of heroics makes sense. As humans grow older, finding something or someone relatable doesn’t change.

  12. An intriguing article and a fascinating topic! I’ve never heard of Superhero Therapy before now, but this article really helped explain it and made it easy for others to understand the concept as well.
    The interview is well done and covers all the necessities regarding the topic, while going into Dr. Scarlet’s own personal experiences with and opinions regarding Superhero therapy. From what I understand, Superhero therapy is about helping patients through their difficulties by encouraging them to relate/look up to superhero figures. This sounds like an interesting method of therapy because it encourages a positive method of thinking.
    My only concern would be superheros romanticizing traumas and difficulties, or worse, illnesses and disabilities being used to demonize other characters. How would they ensure that Superhero therapy serves to help people deal with their problems instead of encourage people’s destructive/harmful tendencies? Thank you!

  13. This is really entertaining to read. when i was a kid i do idolize a ‘Superman’ as my role model: he’s strong so than he can help others that in need. This value is actually one thing that i always keep it with me until now, not because I look for an attention or validation, but it’s just nice to be able to help someone.

    I really wish this interview actually gave a successful example of therapy with anonymous patient; i want to know what kind of superhero that relates to them, and how it help their condition. It will be more interesting to hear that from the others perspective.

  14. like anyone who loves fiction, I am absolutely fascinated by this concept. After reading this article, the idea of modelling therapy on fictional superheroes seems intuitive. I like how Dr Scarlet discusses her own experiences with superheroes, it makes the concept feel more relevant.
    I have a few questions though. As we all know, there are a lot of debates about whether certain personality traits or life experiences of superheroes are good or bad. The notion of good and bad itself is very subjective. If someone identifies well with a villainous character but idolises their positive traits, then should that be considered as a good role model or not? what if the inverse occurs? what if someone is really inspired by a hero, but keeps fixating on traits like their aggression and isolation? I also wonder how one can manage to keep subjectivity out of this therapy technique. If my perspective about a particular character differs from that of my therapist, then is it possible that this difference of opinion reflects the outcome of the therapy?
    I did some further reading on the topic and I came across a website created by Dr Patrik O’Connor: http://www.comicspedia.net/. It is an exhaustive database of most published comic books and their underlying psychological significance. I wonder if this is meant to be used as a manual for the interpretation of such superheroes, or just one man’s ideas of what we can learn from these stories.

  15. This is the first time I’ve heard of Superhero Therapy, and I find it very intriguing and promising! It provides an easily accessible resource for the patient to engage in or feel connected with at any time, in the event that it is hard to find a real person to be there for the individual.

    However, I am apprehensive about whether superhero therapy would be effective across all ages. While I’ve heard of the use of superheros in play therapy and counselling for children and young adolescents, I would like to have read about how it would have a substantial impact on adults. Rubin et al. (2006) demonstrated that rich fantasies serve a number of important developmental functions for children, including emotional release, a sense of power, instillation of hope, and a resource for problem solving and identity formation. However, do such fantasies serve the same function in adults who might have grown out of ‘fantasies’ or become more cynical about the world? They may be well aware that superheroes are after all fictional and may find it impractical or difficult to connect with imaginary characters. In addition, I’ve spotted some minor spelling and grammatical mistakes in the article (e.g. “whether” instead of “weather”), but they can definitely be avoided with some proof-reading 🙂

  16. There would be a lot of plus sides to superhero therapy if it became a larger known concept in mainstream media! Think of the diversity that would be brought about because of it! It wouldn’t just be a way to help marginalised and otherwise struggling people but also a way to teach society of the ways in which different people think and act (if done correctly) which would certainly bring about a more tolerant society.
    Though, I feel like superhero therapy (the concept of it at least) isn’t just for people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, people on the autism spectrum, people who struggle with chronic pain, eating disorders, and other mental health struggles but also for people who find themselves in less than ideal or stressful situations that are near impossible to get out of. People who find themselves in situations where they feel targeted or frustrated could turn to strong characters that have been through similar situations and in turn find the strength to get their life back in order or to move on from a past event.

  17. I believe this therapy could be valuable to many people. I’ve heard people report feelings of alienation and depression after they have received a diagnosis. A friend became depressed and discouraged after her son received a diagnosis and she realized that she was similarly afflicted. I had to remind her that the way she had been combatting her difficulties by choosing positive thoughts and impulses and by helping others was very effective in managing her mental health issues and that her son could also be instructed on managing his by accepting that he has the power to choose a positive outlook and respond positively to negative impulses and delusions. That he also has the power to improve his situation through the care plan that he is being given by the professionals helping him. We all have the power to make to best of our own situations in life, but for many of us that does not seem real.

  18. Like many others have said, until now I had never heard of superhero therapy, but it makes a lot of sense to me. I have been diagnosed with bipolar and an anxiety disorder. For years after, and still to this day, my confidence levels have tanked because I thought there wasn’t a way I could move past my illness. A trade mark of superheros is that they were presented with a challenge in life and instead of giving up, they pushed through it and used their talents to help others. Taking this approach and utilizing superheros as examples for struggling individuals is a fantastic idea! It can help restore confidence, creativity, and more.

    I would love to see a follow up article with more discussion of the application and results of this therapy. How widely used is this? What sort of studies/case studies have been done?

  19. Up until now, I had never heard of Superhero Therapy. Now, I want to get involved! I’ve never had an experience where I related to a superhero but as a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I have had many instances where I was able to relate to fictional characters in a semi-therapeutic way. Also as a writer, I’ve been able to create characters that I can relate to really well.

  20. I love the idea of super hero therapy. I have heard so many people talk badly about themselves and it tears me up that all they see is the bad when obviously no one is all bad. I believe that using widely known characters and the difficulties that they face and overcome can be tremendously effective in helping people recognize their own strengths by identifying with certain characters. Either on their own or with the help of a therapist everyone can find something strong and good about themselves that can help them identify with a certain pop culture character.

    I would love to know more about what super hero therapy looks like in action. Does the patient dress up like their chosen character? Do people often strive to identify with only one character or do they choose whatever characters they can think of that they feel they resemble in their actions?

    The article was well written and easy to follow. I liked knowing the background story of Dr. Scarlet as it was interesting and a perfect example of real life applications of her therapy technique.

    Thanks for writing!

  21. First time I hear about Superhero Therapy. Its an awesome idea! I am a big fan of superheroes and I know a superhero or a character can make such an impact in someone life. All comics have a second meaning behind, some of them very deep and you can learn a lot from them.

    I wonder how this work, how she can approach individual problematics and use a character to get better specially with those people who dont know anything about comics or sci-fi, and how is the treatment according the age. This was very interesting to learn about.

  22. To start, I feel that the headline should be far shorter. It seems sort of smashed together and I think you would benefit from a short headline and a longer sub-headline. There are quite a few grammatical errors, which can be amended by having someone proof read the article prior to submission. However, the questions you asked Dr. Scarlet rendered thorough and intelligent responses, and your inclusion of different ways to contact her are helpful.

  23. For a while now I’ve never had a word or phrase to describe this phenomenon because it is in fact true. This is actually where I think a lot of the fans we see in conventions and in general, the super fans are the way they are because in some way or another they go through superhero therapy on their own without realizing. I’m guilty for falling under this type of therapy but I’m more of an anime fan. I’m actually glad I now have a phrase to describe it because now when I look at my favorite characters of anime or marvel I can probably see what they have that compare to what I went through. All in all I love this article.

  24. I think this was actually incredibly refreshing to read. We often don’t think of superheroes and connect them in ways of mental health. Today, and in my own personal experience, I connect with the heroes from Steven Universe who battle with things like anxiety, depression, and grief.

    One thing I’d like to point out is maybe clarify in the first answer of the “sciences” our interviewee would participate in. Maybe certain examples of the sciences she would enjoy learning since there are so many different types of them – biology, physics, chemistry. It’d be interesting to know which one. Although, with her background it would be safe to assume chemistry? It’s best not to leave your readers assuming however. Overall, I enjoyed this very much – great job!

  25. I have been watching Ben 10 since I was a kid and to know my favorite superheroes can help people in real life is mind blowing.

    In our times, superheroes are like a symbol. People are proud to know everything about this one fictional character that has no connection to the real world, but to think they can help us with one of the most pursing issues of time; mental illness, is really something amazing.

    We all need someone to look upto, to know there is someone who is like us, to be sure we are not alone in this world, that we are not the only ‘weird’ one and who could be better than our favorite character from a series. A person who in some way has gone through the same experiences as us. I am positive this new approach to psychological therapy is going to be a breakthrough and help a lot of people.

    P.S. You should go over your document once more. I can spot a spelling mistake in there.

  26. I never thought that two things could be connected, but this idea is brilliant. Because, no matter how old are you people need some kind of superhero, wheter they realize that or not. This is especially good for the children, because they indentify themselfs with the superheros, so often pedagogist use a superhero like a motivation, to motive children to eat vegetables they even use cartoons, so they could tell childern that if they eat spinach, they could grow tall as the Popay did, or something like that. And that is just a most basic example. It would be interesting reading more about the method itself, .because it is really interesting. It would be good to read about the results of this therapy.

  27. The idea of Superhero Therapy is fascinating. I have spent a large part of my life reading comic books and watching superhero movies, all the while aligning myself with the superheroes I wanted to be emulate. I never considered that this could have a positive effect on my mental health. Looking back, I see that imagining myself as one of the X-Men got me through a large amount of the anxiety I experienced as a child. I wonder how many others have grown up doing the same thing. It makes me happy to know that the stories I’ve loved all my life are helping people in such profound ways. I would be interested to see what age group this therapy is most effective for and what kind of gender differences exist in the results. Thank you for sharing this innovative and dynamic form of therapy!

  28. Wow, I like this new type of approach! This is almost as if she collected all negative aspects from more “classic” therapies and evolved them into something modern and useful.
    I think this therapy is brilliant, especially when it comes to children and teens. Many of them are not ready to deal with the problems they are facing just yet – that’s why they need a figure that always does the right thing to guide them and to give them strenght.
    I have another thought about this.. from the beginning of the article all the way till the end, the only question that popped in my head was: “okay, but HOW do they do it?” I think it would be great if there were another question or two about the process. However, I appreciate that there is a link at the end and the whole personal story behind this project – it made everything seem so friendly and brilliant.

  29. It is amazing to see how Dr. Scarlet was impacted by X-Men and how that has allowed her to see herself as a survivor. These are moments when I think media and television can be an amazing thing when they can be role models and make people feel better about themselves. The Superhero Therapy is amazing and is such a fresh idea that I have never heard about before. When we are young, we are told that we can be whoever we want to be and told we can be superheroes, and this shows that even after childhood, adults can be superheroes too! This is a theory that can be applied to people with a variety of mental illnesses which makes it extremely useful and helpful. I would like to learn more about what people do during this therapy.

  30. Superhero therapy has potential, especially for younger people, but I don’t really understand how it would work for adults or the elderly, because it seems like they would be more skeptical of it working, or wouldn’t find anything attractive about this kind of therapy. But for kids, this definitely seems like it would work really well.

  31. This article is really really interesting! I’ve never heard of superhero therapy…I had no idea that something like this could exist. This article has really made me consider going down the clinical psychology path again.
    It’s just so fascinating that something so simple and innocent could have such great benefits for mental health!
    Overall, this article is well written…there’s nothing to really change but maybe the title could be more concise?

  32. This is such an awesome article, the topic is amazing. I’d never heard of something like this before!! Totally makes sense though that it would be so helpful for people across all kinds of diagnoses. I also had no idea that meteor showers caused a change in radiation, I didn’t know much about the after effects of radiation in general. It was so cool to read about that and learn about that as well and how radiation effects people, and her personal experience with it. The interview questions were great and insightful.

    I noticed there was a typo with the word “whether” it should actually be “weather.” Besides that, I really can’t find much to improve on with this article! Great job!

  33. I love this article. The greatest thing about this approach is that its actually so common. Everyone reads fiction or watches a tv show/film series they love with a character to form a connection with. In fact, the 80’s rendition of Teen Titans titled The New Teen Titans wasn’t just made for teens to get into superheroes, but for adolescents to see themselves in more realistic portrayals of superheroes going through similar challenging obstacles with their family life and psyche.

    I had my experience with loads of characters from various anime series, most notably a character named Simon from a well-known work of art called Gurren Lagann. Seeing him rise up and form into a strong willed human being from the cautious awkward snowball he was in the first episode really struck a chord with me and so many other fans.

  34. I am so happy that you had a chance to interview someone on Superhero Therapy. I have a vague understanding of it, but getting the chance to get a more in-depth look into it and its uses were very much of an eye opener for me because when you stop and think about it, it makes complete sense.

    I really enjoyed your strategy for this interview, allowing the audience to get to know Dr. Scarlet instead of just immediately jumping into the definition of Superhero Therapy. This made me feel much more comfortable about the interview, reading it almost as if you two were friends and not just someone there to get information. I loved getting a little glance at Dr. Scarlet’s “origin story”. It gave the article a little background and blended beautifully into her work with Superhero Therapy and helped to understand why she uses this approach to help those who struggle with mental illness. A very enjoyable read!

  35. I find the concept of superhero therapy to be an interesting form of therapy for many persons with physical and/or mental illnesses. I wish there was more explained about how it works? As of right now, it just seems like a theory of discussing superheroes which is a way for many folks to find a means of escape and has provided much positive products that have come out of the last couple generations but I don’t know exactly how they help and I would love to know more.

    1. I agree Diadra, perhaps a quick paragraph or two about the actual technique would have helped to completely flesh out the approach. I have a feeling you aren’t far off though!

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