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”.  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.
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 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.  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!