Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects around 12 percent of veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That number includes veterans of the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the recent conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if you were to look to Hollywood war films, you may believe the number to be much higher.
Although we have a greater understanding of the condition, Hollywood still fails to depict PTSD in an authentic way and often relies on stereotypical portrayals. Veterans themselves report that the hurtful stereotype of the broken shell of a person returning from war leads to prejudice, fear, and a lack of opportunities. Most veterans return to civilian life after serving time without incident and are functional members of society.
Yet the portrayal of veterans who return home with shell shock, mental illness, and alcoholism is a common Hollywood plot device. It’s most notable in films like “The Hurt Locker” and “Taxi Driver.”
Here’s how filmmakers can help reduce the stigma of PTSD and portray veterans in a more accurate light.
1. Avoid the Glorification of Gun Violence
Gun violence is an unfortunate part of life in modern society, from the U.S. to South Africa and beyond. And with the prevalence of gun violence around the globe comes a sort of collective numbness: Put simply, the more senseless shootings occur, the public’s need to do something about gun violence, such as advocating for gun control laws, decreases.
The phenomenon is even more pronounced in heavy combat areas, where loss of life essentially comes with the territory. War films tend to use gun violence as a plot device. The active combat is looked on as a cause for an individual’s PTSD rather than an individual or family’s tragedy.
One film that did a particularly commendable job of treating gun violence as a tragic social issue is “22 July”. It was released in 2018. “22 July” is a fictionalized account of the largest mass shooting in Norway’s history. While it’s not a war film, the movie aptly illustrates how gun violence affects individuals and nations as a whole.
2. Focus on Ways the Military Deals with PTSD
Rather than focusing on how veterans cope after returning from war or combat, films can emphasize the training programs in place during a soldier’s time in service. Over the past two decades, the military and police departments have conducted numerous studies on how the brain reacts to stress and combat panic, reports Eastern Kentucky University.
Therefore, these organizations have a greater understanding of how to help individuals avoid PTSD altogether. Military training programs focus on preparing for situations that may induce panic. They also cultivate an awareness of one’s own mental state in dangerous situations.
Long-term stress does indeed take a toll on the human brain, but military researchers are well aware of this fact. For example, combat stress reduces serotonin and dopamine levels, the neurotransmitters responsible for mood. In order to keep levels stable, the military makes sure that soldiers have regular exercise and eat plenty of carbs. Both methods have been shown to naturally boost serotonin and dopamine.
3. Put a Spotlight on PTSD Treatment and Therapy
Despite the best efforts of the military to curb PTSD before it starts, an estimated 20 veterans take their own lives every day. Rather than emphasizing these tragic cases, filmmakers can instead highlight the success stories of soldiers who have used various forms of treatment and therapy to overcome the effects of PTSD.
One alternative form of PTSD treatment is equine therapy, which uses interaction with horses to address the physiological basis of PTSD. While little research exists regarding the efficacy of equine therapy, it has nonetheless found success among veterans. And wouldn’t that make for a great film?
“Equine therapy can serve as an alternative to talk therapy because horses can’t pass judgment the way humans do.” This is according to Tonic. That fear of being judged keeps many veterans from seeking treatment for PTSD.
There is a negative self-stigma that surrounds the condition, which can lead to depression, low self-esteem, poor quality of life, and an inability to seek help. Movies should address PTSD treatment methods instead of focusing on the negative symptoms. If that happens, that self-stigma could be reduced in many cases.
4. Help Viewers Better Understand the Symptoms of PTSD
Modern technology is also helping to introduce new forms of PTSD treatment, including virtual reality therapy. VR therapy is an immersive experience wherein a patient is exposed to stimuli and environments that bring them back to the traumatic event, but in a controlled, therapist-led environment.
This type of therapy is effective in treating veterans with PTSD. It can also help individuals suffering from PTSD related to other traumatic events, such as mass shootings or sexual assault. Continued VR therapy may help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, from re-living the trauma to paranoia and hyperarousal. Further, PTSD symptoms can be mild, moderate, or serious, reports the National Institute of Mental Health, yet many view PTSD as a chronically debilitating condition.
PTSD symptoms are highly individualized, yet Hollywood tends to lump characters with the condition into the same category. Fictional characters with PTSD often jump at sudden noises or avoid crowds. They deal with their symptoms through the use of drugs and alcohol. If you bring more attention to the wide array of possible PTSD symptoms, movie viewers might develop a more nuanced view of the condition.
The movie industry can do better in its depiction of characters with PTSD. If, instead of being portrayed as broken or mentally deranged individuals, fictional PTSD survivors displayed a wide spectrum of symptoms, some of the stigma surrounding the condition could be alleviated. And, if movies focused on treatment options rather than the trauma that led to the condition in the first place, more individuals living with PTSD might seek help.