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10 films that explain PTSD with sensitivity

To mark PTSD Awareness Month, Mint lists ten films and shows in English and Hindi that offer a realistic depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder

A scene from American Sniper
A scene from American Sniper (IMDb )

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It is a mental health problem that is often underdiagnosed—post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD can develop after a person undergoes or witnesses an extremely stressful, distressing or frightening experience. The causes could range from abuse, conflict and loss to serious accidents, sexual assault and prolonged exposure to distressing circumstances at work. According to the US’ National Centre for PTSD, 6 out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD manifests in multiple ways: In some, it is a trigger or a trauma response; in others, it can exacerbate to a point where they retire into a fantasy world and get cut off from reality. Its occurrence has made its way into pop culture. From war movies to fantasy fiction, there have been some effective and impactful portrayals of how trauma can impact personality, explain psychotherapists Dr Aman Bhonsle and Anshuma Kshetrapal. This PTSD Awareness Month, we list ten shows and movies accurately representing the condition.


In the movie, based on the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, Bradley Cooper plays the protagonist whose PTSD manifests interestingly; he craves the chaos of the trauma. A stint in Afghanistan makes it impossible for him to adjust to everyday civilian life, and he gets addicted to the need to be deployed somewhere, anywhere. He cannot get away from the source of trauma. It becomes the most familiar and recurring source of stimulation in his life, becoming an addiction.

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Rambo tells the story of a US war veteran who returns from Vietnam and is persecuted by cops in the sleepy town of Hope, Washington. The police look at him like a troublesome character who has entered their town. When he escapes the police, they treat him like a criminal. No one lets him explain himself or identify himself. He finally escapes to the jungle, attacking anyone who comes to get him. In the last few minutes of the movie, Sylvester Stallone cries and breaks down, raging about war and its aftermath, a behaviour which is not in keeping with his character, a macho, muscular killing machine. Of course, not all veterans with PTSD come back to become violent offenders, but rehabilitation is still a serious issue, something that the movie throws light on.


In this movie, Robin Williams plays a homeless man with selective memory lapses who lost his wife in a mass shooting. After her death, he gives up living a normal life and has a complete breakdown. In this scenario, the character affected by PTSD has blocked traumatic memories, can’t remember what has happened and retracts into this shell. He can’t seem to remember the mass shooting, and every time he tries to, he has a breakdown, shouting, screaming, running on the street, and showing classic signs of PTSD.


Shutter Island is another good example of a movie that portrays PTSD. The protagonist creates a fictional reality where he is a detective looking for clues. In reality, he’s dealing with extreme PTSD, including signs of dementia and schizophrenia, and imagines that people are conspiring against him.


In this series, the protagonist is dealing with PTSD after losing his entire family. Additionally, he is a war veteran who’s seen more violence than one can fathom and becomes a very effective killing machine like Rambo. Even though there are cinematic liberties taken regarding PTSD to build the character, it shows what going through PTSD is like, fairly effectively.


All eight films in the Harry Potter franchise, based on the books by J.K. Rowling, are sensitive to trauma. Multiple characters, including Harry Potter, Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood show different symptoms of PTSD.


Several mental health conditions are depicted in the movie, including flashbacks and splits of memory that can take over someone who has PTSD. The movie also elaborates on how the manifestation of a trauma response can be addictive; one needs chaos and excitement for reality to feel real.


This movie focuses on trans generational impact of trauma where children pick up trauma patterns from parents and replicate them. The protagonist, played by Priyanka Chopra, grows up in a tumultuous household, which, in turn, causes her to make bad decisions that she later regrets. A pivotal moment in the movie is when Chopra identifies how her PTSD causes her to make poor romantic decisions and decides to re-parent herself and not settle for abuse just because her parents did.


The 2008 film tells the story of a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family, deprived of resources and love and becomes a thief. While not all criminal intent is rooted in trauma, in this movie, it was. While the lead character’s PTSD manifested in crime, it didn’t affect his charm and humour. The film also focuses on the state’s systemic failure to understand and empathise with trauma before it turns to crime.

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Marvel does a fabulous job of creating both heroes and villains who are products of some trauma narrative. While the former choose hope, the latter choose chaos, and the viewer is able to empathise with both choices. While Joker deserves mention, Iron Man 3 was a true depiction of the kind of anxiety, panic and freeze response a PTSD episode can cause.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist

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