How Hollywood wrongly portray Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in films

4 Nov

The portrayal of Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) in films, much like our understanding of mental health and how we view it, has changed as medical knowledge grew and breakthroughs were made. What may seem like bad acting or barbaric treatment now, at the time they were made (or depiction of the time being portrayed) was the normality of the situation. Officially PTSD was acknowledged as a legitimate disorder in 1980 but it has been recorded for many millennia under different terms such as “Nostalgia” “Soldier’s Heart” “Shell Shocked” and “Battle Fatigue”.  [1] The majority of PTSD films center around the horrors of war and its aftermath, more recently it has been found that it covers a wider range of traumatic events such as car crashes, terrorist attacks, physical abuse, injuries or witnessing a violent death. So more films are now being made which include these PTSD events in their plots.

The Prince of Tides-1991

Although successful at the box office, with critics and award nominations, the film has errors in it. The Prince of Tides tells the story of Tom Wingo (played by Nick Nolte) who is asked to go to New York to help his twin sister’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein (played by Barbara Streisand), after her latest suicide attempt. Susan hopes that he will provide some information about his sister’s past that will help her to treat her. The first problem is that his sister seems to be ignored while Tom seems to become the patient. Secondly Tom starts to have feelings for Susan. A responsible psychiatrist would realize this is transference and would either find the cause of it in order to move on, or if that was not possible, transfer the patient to another psychiatrist. However in The Prince of Tides, Susan starts to have feelings for Tom and they begin to have an affair. This is an even bigger problem as it goes against their code of ethics and they could lose their job! The relationship perpetuates one of the biggest myths out there, that the love of a good person can cure anyone. It doesn’t but having someone who loves you and who can provide you with a support system while you work on your issues. The next problem is the time it takes to “cure” Tom and his sister. It appears that the whole movie takes place in a matter of weeks. For a lucky few a course of 6 to 8 weeks of therapy is enough, for the unlucky it can take years and may never go away completely. With Tom and his sister and the scale of their problems it seems unlikely that their problems would be mostly solved in a matter of weeks. This doesn’t help people with any kind of mental health issue as they can feel like failures if they’re not “fixed” quickly. The third problem is that when Tom remembers all of his past and his sister learns of it and remembers herself, they are again “cured.” It creates the myth that as soon as you remember your missing part of your memory, everything will be solved and you’ll fixed. Once again it doesn’t. It’s the start of another long road of working through those new memories.

The Deer Hunter-1978

The Deer Hunter is another highly successful film which portrays some errors. It follows a group of friends, who sign up to fight in the Vietnam War and their journey of life before, during and after the war and its consequences. When captured by the North Vietnamese Army, three of the friends (Nick played by Christopher Walken, Mike played by Robert De Niro and Steven played by John Savage) are forced to play Russian roulette. The three manage to escape, but with the stress of the game plus the horrors of war he’s experienced, Nick has a mental breakdown. In a military hospital Nick is diagnosed as unfit to continue his tour of duty in Vietnam. Instead of being placed on the first plane out of there, it seems like he is left to wander off alone, which is medically unprofessional to do and gives the audience the impression that maybe what he was going through isn’t as serious as it was and that medics don’t take it seriously either which is extremely false! Nick stumbles upon a gambling den where Russian roulette is played and is encouraged to take part. This behavior is the only part of the film that strays from PSTD symptoms. Usually people who suffer from PTSD avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma. [2] So Nick in theory should avoid things that remind him of the war or Russian roulette. However the rest of Christopher’s performance is spot on.

In reality there isn’t going to be a movie that will be 100% successful in portraying PSTD and its treatment. Even those that are close to it can include a few errors that those who have PTSD, (or those who have family and friends with the disorder and medical professionals) will notice more than others. This is because human beings are incredibly complex creatures! Everybody experiences things differently and everyone responds differently to treatments. What may work for one person may not work for the other.  The most important thing is for audience members and film makers to have compassion, an open mind and willingness to learn more about illnesses. The good news is that Hollywood has reached out to the medical professionals and they have created websites like The Entertainment Industries Council and Hollywood, Health & Society to help film makers make more accurate and compassionate performances. Unfortunately, it seems that the public has a long way to go judging by comments left over these and many other films on mental health. Still, progress takes time and at least Hollywood seems to be taking a step in the right direction!




31 Responses to “How Hollywood wrongly portray Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in films”

  1. Open Book November 4, 2013 at 10:24 AM #

    Welcome back Ozzie! Great, great research and article 🙂

    I did not know PTSD was only acknowledged as a legitimate disorder in 1980? That is amazingly shocking. Also, in your article u stated PTSD can also include those who’ve been physically abused or suffered & witnessed traumatic attacks or accidents. Given this fact its sad those with the disorder had to go untreated or worse get misdiagnosed. In your research. Did u find out what PTSD was commonly misdiagnosed as or treatments they received prior to 1980?

    • ozzie20 November 5, 2013 at 8:34 PM #

      Thank you! 🙂

      As Grandpa Ozzie brought me up on history and wars, it’s easier for me to explain things from a war perspective rather than on an individual traumatic experience. It’s almost second nature, lol! So the following will be mostly about that!

      I thought that date was at the least 5 years off. For some reason I had it in my head that it was late 60’s, early 70’s it was acknowledged. Given that it has been documented all the way back to ancient Greece and Egypt, it would of been acknowledged well before that date too. It seems that each major war had it’s own term for it but all reported the same symptoms e.g. depression, fatigue, anxiety etc. From what I gathered from my research is that doctors knew that they were interlinks but there wasn’t an official term and they had been trying to get it officially documented for decades before that. For some reason it was ignored. The biggest reason for that I could gather was that acknowledging it meant governments would be seen as responsible for it. That would mean spending more money for treatment!

      As for treatment, it’s mostly the same as it is today except it’s more advanced now. Usually it was rest away from the action, talking about it. Now we have therapy, medication, behavioural techniques etc but it all came from those origins. The worst treatment however was done by the British in the First World War, who shot over 300 soldiers for “desertion” and “cowardice.” The majority of them would of been diagnosed with acute PTSD today. They received a pardon in 2006.

      • Open Book November 6, 2013 at 3:28 PM #

        Wow! Very informative Ozzie! I love your research and historical knowledge.

        U Said: “The worst treatment however was done by the British in the First World War, who shot over 300 soldiers for “desertion” and “cowardice.”

        That is so sad. How did they justify taking such drastic measures? Also, did this happen during or after the War? meaning were they prosecuted then shot?

        • comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:11 AM #

          Man,……. (way too deep).

          • ozzie20 November 7, 2013 at 9:20 PM #

            It happened during the war and they did have a court martial first. I’ll have to ask what their justifications may have been but I assume part of it was to set an example to the other soldiers. It was banned in the 1930’s fortunately. Britain wasn’t the only country to do it (apart from the USA, they never did it) but they did have the most executions on record.

          • ozzie20 November 12, 2013 at 8:13 PM #

            Forgot to come back once I got the answer, doh! Yes the justification for the executions was to set an example. Generals feared that if the troops saw one man fleeing, it would catch on and they would run too. Apparently there were a number of murderers amoung them (I’m assuming that the victims were civilians not the opposing military force!) and at the time the UK still had the death penalty, so they would of been hung back home.

  2. comicrelief2 November 5, 2013 at 9:58 AM #

    great article Ozzie!

    • littlebells November 5, 2013 at 6:32 PM #

      I concur, great article and research. It’s good to have you back Ozzie! I’ve missed you. 🙂

      • ozzie20 November 5, 2013 at 8:34 PM #

        Thank you and big hugs to both of you, lol! 🙂

    • Open Book November 6, 2013 at 3:36 PM #

      Hi CR,

      Welcome back and

      Happy B-Day! CR and Ozzie! 🙂

      • comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:09 AM #

        Thanks OB,


  3. ozzie20 November 5, 2013 at 2:49 PM #

    Testing my kindle just in case my computer stops the internet again. Though if that happens I’ll nick my Mum’s as it’s just mine that’s playing up, grrr. Nice to know this works though! 🙂

    • ozzie20 November 5, 2013 at 7:22 PM #

      Ooow, it even did the smiley face too!

    • Open Book November 6, 2013 at 3:29 PM #


  4. littlebells November 5, 2013 at 8:15 PM #

    I agree that we need to be more compassionate to those who deal with PTSD. I can’t even imagine the struggles.

  5. ozzie20 November 5, 2013 at 8:58 PM #

    A piece of trivia for everyone. Charles Dickens suffered from PTSD after a train accident on the 6th of June, 1865. Apparently he never rode on a train again and died exactly 5 years to the date!

    Apparently Samuel Pepys, a famous British diarist, also had PTSD from the trauma of The Great Fire of London. His account of it (and that of The Great Plague of London) is what made him famous.

    • littlebells November 5, 2013 at 10:22 PM #

      Wow! That is fascinating! Did Dickens publish after the accident?

      • Open Book November 6, 2013 at 3:38 PM #

        Great Q LB!

      • comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:05 AM #

        Great quest LB.

        • comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:05 AM #

          Sorry great QUESTION.

          • ozzie20 November 12, 2013 at 8:19 PM #

            Yes he still wrote after the accident but it was mostly short stories. All of his well known books were written before then.

    • Open Book November 6, 2013 at 3:34 PM #

      Great trivia info. Are u saying most who suffered with PTSD back then coped by avoiding things that reminded them of the trauma and or writing about it?

      • ozzie20 November 12, 2013 at 8:43 PM #

        Honestly, I don’t know! All I know is that one of the symptoms of PTSD is avoidance and that therapy today has quite a large range, writing being one. In WW1 there were many soldiers who wrote poems and became famous or posthumously famous for them.

  6. comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:06 AM #


    I love the way you have so easily moved through some of the most well-received movies of the last century; and made them so much easier to digest from a laymen’s (or mental health know nothing) perspective.

    How do we keep from installing mental health professionals as the critics for all Hollywood films that venture into this territory? Or for what reason would this turn of events be a good or bad idea?

    • ozzie20 November 12, 2013 at 9:04 PM #

      I’m not sure. I suppose sufferers could speak up but often it’s something very difficult to talk about. There’s a great amount of stigma associated with mental health disorders as well. People don’t want that pressure on them as well. Another would be films made by people who have experience in this area. For example Silver Linings Playbook was adapted and directed by David O. Russell who’s son has bipolar disorder. I guess it will take a group effort.

  7. comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:07 AM #

    Sorry a very long tangent on the way. In terms of bad taste when is to too much speculation enough? Most people have fairly little control of their physical weight, yet popular culture seems to think this topic is fully up for grabs and can be talked about in great detail. And please don’t be a celebrity who was familiar and one weight, then significantly changed seemingly without reason.

    • ozzie20 November 12, 2013 at 9:54 PM #

      Good question! In my opinion the lined should be judged by people who live with it, their family and friends and health professionals. However every person experiences it differently so deciding what is too much could vary a lot. But I think everyone agrees that it shouldn’t be mocked at all. Personally I don’t like it when it is trivialised or people who have no personal knowledge of it insist they know what’s best or even worse snobbery in how to treat it.

      With trivialisation I really don’t like quick fixes because for a lot of people it’s a life long battle. Even those who have it for a short period of time, that time can amount to months. There is no magic cure! Know-it-all people, well that’s obvious to everyone as to why that behaviour is wrong. Now snobbery may be a surprise to people but it exists. There’s a lot of stigma over medication. One being that it makes you more manic or that you can become zombie like. Also if you take medication you’re a weaker person or you’re someone who falls for greedy pharmaceutical company lies. The worst thing is that this also comes out of other sufferers mouths as well as the know-it-alls. To them ideal remedy is diet, exercise and maybe herbal alternatives. They seem to fail to understand that the brain is highly complicated organ that still isn’t fully understood, and that everybody experiences and respond to things differently. With medicine and therapy you have to find the right kind that helps you. Also medicine has improved. Eventually after a lot of trial and error you find the right one which allows you to feel the highs and lows of life but you’re capable of coping with those feeling.

      And I’ll end it there or I’ll ramble on for the rest of the night, lol! Oh and I don’t like those type of celebrities either! 🙂

  8. comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:07 AM #

    One could, and many do consider clean mental health as necessary as good physical hygiene. How do you feel about these public expectations, and what role do you think Hollywood should play in assisting these perceptions.

    • ozzie20 November 12, 2013 at 10:02 PM #

      With any expectation, I don’t like it because it usually stems from some misconception. If only mental health was a simple as physical hygiene, lol! 🙂 Again I don’t think that should be perpetuated. I hope that is what you meant. I’m getting tired so I may have misread what you wrote, lol!

  9. comicrelief2 November 7, 2013 at 11:08 AM #

    Though you are not talking about them, whole genres of films are built on poor mental health as the origin for negative ethical compulsions. Can we resolve these plots and story narratives without eliminating the negative motivations of characters in so many films?

    • ozzie20 November 12, 2013 at 10:30 PM #

      I believe so. It’s not about removing the negative motivations, it’s about how it is expressed or are presented. People don’t want to be belittled or mocked. They don’t want to feel like a loser or feel ashamed of their illness. I think movie makers should do more research and make these characters fully dimensional and not one note. People can relate to the characters easier. If there is one aspect, experience or trait they can feel they share with the character, people begin to explore the whole character. They begin to think “what if I” type of questions. Hopefully that will tap into their empathy and make them more open minded about these issues. Also talented actors need to take these parts. Wooden or over the top actors can do more harm than good! It’s very hard to empathise and get lost in the characters when the actor is doing such an awful job!

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