In this day and age, mental disorders and illnesses are more recognized and prevalent then they have ever been in society. With the growing awareness of mental illnesses, more research has been accomplished in order to provide more information. There are too many negative myths and stereotypes surrounding those with a mental illness that shed a detrimental light on individuals suffering from the disorders. Many of the preconceptions people hold are formed through the myriad of items in popular culture, such as movies, tv shows, or songs. One particular disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD, is not an exception. 7-8% of the population experience the disorder, or a total of 8 million people (Pierce).
Through the different aspects of PTSD, it is apparent that the disorder is not only mentally debilitating, but is also judged negatively by society, based on the stereotypes to which people are exposed. American Sniper, although depicting PTSD of a war veteran, manages to accurately represent the disorder and the challenges that come with developing the illness. PTSD is not simply stress’ but a heightened stress response that lasts much longer than the average feeling of anxiety. The disorder is caused by a severe traumatic event. Simon Pierce, author of PTSD: Causes and Care, clarifies that although many situations can be traumatic, the disorder mainly occurs from situations that are life-threatening. For instance, experiences in war, rape, abuse, or even natural disaster survivors. During the original traumatic experience, feelings of fear and helplessness will overwhelm the body. These feelings will activate the alarm system in the brain, sending signals that eventually flood the body with stress hormones.
The hormones cause changes in the body that brace it to defend itself. These changes include an increase in heart rate, tense muscles and quickening of breathing. For those suffering with PTSD, this cycle repeats even after the crisis, when triggered by someone or something that reminds the sufferer of the original trauma. In other words, the body is consistently going into survival mode’ as the person encounters specific triggers. According to the NHS website, UK’s largest health website, PTSD is considered to be a survival mechanism tohelp [one] survive further traumatic experiences but, in reality, is unneeded after the trauma. Symptoms for people with PTSD can vary between individuals, but there are three main categories that the symptoms could fall under. The first type of symptom is Re-experiencing, the most typically experienced by those diagnosed with PTSD.
Re-experiencing consists of involuntarily reliving the event vividly. NHS and NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) list some of these symptoms as flashbacks, nightmares, and physical sensations, such as feeling sick or trembling. In fact, Brooke Collins explains that the memories experienced by those with PTSD feel extremely recent and the sensations are equal to the experienced intensity of the original traumatic event. The second category of symptoms is Avoidance and Emotional Numbing. Avoidance is when the individual evades people or places that can remind them about their past trauma. Alternately, Emotional Numbing is a way to deal with unwanted feelings by trying to feel nothing at all, preferring to be detached. This series of symptoms has consequences that could lead to isolation or giving up previous interests and hobbies. Lastly, Hyperarousal is a category of symptoms that consists of difficulty relaxing and/or constantly being aware of threats. Examples of symptoms for Hyperarousal are irritability, angry outbursts, and difficulty concentrating or sleeping. Symptoms tend to differ in children suffering from PTSD. Common, more specific symptoms for children are bedwetting and re-enacting the traumatic event(s) through their play (NHS).
When deciding whether or not to diagnose someone with PTSD, there are specific criteria that are constantly being updated in order to accurately diagnose as many people as possible. In Culture and PTSD edited by Devon E. Hinton and Byron J. Good, the most recent criteria is explained. The first and most important section states that there was either some exposure to death, a serious injury or sexual violence. One could have had personal experience, witnessed death or have had repeated exposure to trauma. The next series of criteria involves having symptoms in the three main categories: Re-experience, Avoidance, and Hyperarousal. For instance, there would need to be a number of intrusion, or re-experiencing, symptoms present in the individual after the traumatic event, which could account for involuntary memories or reoccurring distressing dreams.
Lastly, a significant element when diagnosing someone is how long the symptoms last, and how they affect the individual. The criteria holds that symptoms should last for more than a month and cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning. This element is what differentiates those with PTSD from those simply recovering from trauma. There are multiple treatments and approaches that could aid someone with PTSD. But, considering everyone has different experiences, the treatments are individualized for each person; Something that may work for one, might have no effect on another. Regarding the expanse of time that someone would need to be treated, starting shortly after the trauma can shorten the treatment immensely. In fact, the amount of treatment needed is contingent upon the symptoms’ severity and the effect the symptoms have on the person’s daily life. One of these treatments is psychotherapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This type of talk therapy identifies negative thoughts connected with the trauma and helps patients to reframe their experience in a more positive light by teaching them to alter their way of thinking. Another form of talk therapy is a group therapy or support group.
The advantage of this therapy is the opportunity to be surrounded by others struggling with the same disorder. It is easier to talk about personal information with those who can understand and relate to the same emotions and feelings. Another option includes medication, which will not cure the disorder but can help manage the symptoms. Specifically, antidepressants, such as Paroxetine, are commonly used in unison with another therapy. Medication is usually withdrawn if it is shown to be helping, but otherwise the dosage is increased. For children under 18, medication is commonly not an option as they are instead suggested to try CBT. Different factors can make people more susceptible to developing PTSD. Genetics, for instance, could affect one’s chances. A history of mental illness in the family could increase the possibility of developing PTSD as well as already suffering from another mental illness, like depression or anxiety. Women are also more at risk of PTSD than men.
According to NCBI source by Danial Ditlevson, gender has been found to be an important biological determinant of vulnerability to psychological stress. Although women are less subjected to potentially traumatic events, they develop PTSD more frequently than men due to the higher likelihood of experiencing specific trauma types that are PTSD inducing. Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD during their lifetime: 10% of women compared to the 4% of men. On the other hand, younger children are also more vulnerable when experiencing trauma. Pierce explains that young children, unlike adults, have not developed the normal ability to cope with stress or the behavioral skills to handle the life threatening trauma. This disorder is riddled with stereotypes that many people hold without ever actually knowing someone with PTSD.
For instance, one of the most common myths of this disorder is that only veteran’s are prone to developing PTSD. Although a large portion of PTSD sufferers are from the military, PTSD can be developed from any traumatic circumstance. Another stereotype is that everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. This is false because, as specified by NHS, only 1 in 3 people actually end up developing PTSD after a traumatic event. Finally, the myth that PTSD can only affect someone immediately after the trauma is erroneous. If time has passed, people are still at risk because symptoms can arise months, or even years after the trauma. One example of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in popular culture is the book-adapted movie American Sniper.
The movie is based on the book written by Chris Kyle, an autobiography detailing his own experiences coping with the disorder after war. In the movie, some of Kyle’s struggles include hyperarousal, as he is always on alert and jumps at loud sounds, and vivid memories of war. He also acts detached from his family and avoids any sort of topic pertaining to what he did during his four tours, evidently evading any sort of mention of his traumatic experience. Based on the criteria discussed previously, this movie accurately illustrates PTSD through the representations of the symptoms and the consistent trauma that a veteran experiences in war. In fact, Mark Pollack MD, chairman of Rush’sDepartment of Psychiatry, claimed the film was a moving and accurate portrayal of the impact combat has on our soldiers and, especially, their families (Charles Jolie).
The movie humanizes those with PTSD by displaying how they suffer in silence when no one around them knows what is going on in their head. American Sniper is an accurate representation of PTSD, and the symptoms portrayed are realistic for the disorder without being overdramatized. In my opinion, this work not only supported the general stereotyped symptoms, but also did a better job relaying the internal suffering as opposed to violent outbursts which the stereotypes seem to support. This work was a positive depiction because it was not only accurate, but did not dehumanize the protagonist like many movies do when portraying mental illness. After watching this movie, viewers would be more informed about the disorder in military personnel and hopefully see PTSD in a new light; an illness that does not include senseless violence and danger like many stereotypes would suggest, but instead involves internal suffering that requires understanding and patience.
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