From documentaries and books, to hit television shows and major motion pictures, PTSD makes an appearance quite regularly in modern American culture today. On this page, I share only a few examples of the PTSD references I have personally noticed in pop culture, but there are undoubtedly many more. If you have any suggestions of what I should add, feel free to leave a comment!
Perhaps attesting to the enhanced understanding of PTSD and alarm at the troubling suicide rates of veterans, the media seems to be raising the public’s attention about the condition, for example, through the use of documentaries. In 2005, PBS FRONTLINE released a documentary entitled, “The Soldier’s Heart,” which can be viewed in its entirety at this link. The documentary gives an overview of the history of PTSD, but focuses specifically on the psychological toll of the Iraq war. It illuminates the fact that despite advances in our understanding of PTSD, there continues to be a stigma against psychological problems in the military.
Another excellent documentary was released by HBO in 2010, entitled, Wartorn 1861-2010. This documentary, shown in the five YouTube videos below, gives a historical perspective of PTSD since the American Civil War, interspersed with interviews with veterans regarding their personal experiences with the disorder. The documentary also features interviews with military medical personnel giving their perspectives on the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD today.
Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1993) is a work of historical fiction which tells the story of real-life poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon, who was institutionalized at Craiglockhart War Hospital for shell shock during WWI. There, he was treated by the psychologist W.H.R. Rivers, who used modern methods for treating shell shock– a sharp contrast to the more common methods of the day, consisting primarily of drugging patients, confining them, or purposely giving them fevers. This book, the first of a trilogy, gives readers a glimpse of how WWI soldiers suffered much of the same trauma as soldiers do today, but coped in much different ways.
The ABC medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, depicts a trauma surgeon named Owen Hunt who suffers from PTSD after his entire military unit was killed in an ambush. Over the course of several episodes, the following symptoms surfaced: (a) hypersensitivity, (b) panic attacks, (c) nightmares, and (d) avoidance of discussing the trauma (primarily by burying himself in his work). Owen’s character seems to be a quite accurate portrayal of the reality of PTSD, as he exhibits the intrusion, avoidance, and arousal diagnostic criteria. In the following clip, Owen’s PTSD was triggered by a ceiling fan, and he wakes up from a nightmare strangling his girlfriend:
The portrayal of Owen on Grey’s Anatomy also educates viewers that PTSD can be treated. After the strangling incident, his girlfriend felt unsafe falling asleep next to him, and they broke up. The toll his PTSD took on his relationship finally prompted Owen to seek help. The clip depicts Owen having a brain scan. Later, he sought counseling for PTSD.
The major motion picture, Brothers (2009), focuses on two main characters: Sam, a husband, father and soldier who fought in Afghanistan, and Tommy, his brother who is trying to get his act together after being released from jail. When Sam goes missing in Afghanistan and is assumed to be dead, Tommy tries to fill the void he left by comforting Sam’s grieving wife and children. However, Sam is then unexpectedly rescued from his captors and returns home, with severe PTSD. In the clip found at this link, Sam lashes out in anger when he suspects his brother and wife had an affair, indicative of the paranoia brought on by his disorder. Underlying his anger, though, is overwhelming guilt as a result of one particularly traumatic event in the war, in which he was forced by his captors to beat his friend to death with a lead pipe. His guilt and shame prevent him from sharing this incident with anyone, but being treated as a hero when he feels he is a villain causes him so much distress that it nearly drives him to suicide. Brothers is a powerful film that depicts the unthinkable trauma with which many veterans must live, and the consequences their families face when they don’t seek help.
Although these documentaries, books, television shows, and movies all provide a slightly different glimpse into PTSD, they cumulatively inform the public that PTSD is quite common in combat veterans and highlight the importance of seeking treatment.