5 TV Shows That Got PTSD (Mostly) Right
Editor’s Note: The following post contains spoilers for the TV shows mentioned.
It’s no secret that art can imitate life. Perhaps this is why we often find movies and TV shows so relatable. When searching for a good TV show to watch, we sometimes find ourselves looking for characters who represent our experiences or have plot lines that speak to what we’ve gone through in our lives.
If you live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may have found it’s difficult to find a show that represents your unique experience if you aren’t a veteran. And while PTSD in the veteran population is very real and important to talk about, it’s usually the only association people make with PTSD. But the reality is, PTSD has many faces and can be the result of many different types of trauma, including sexual assault, domestic violence, childhood emotional abuse — just to name a few.
Luckily, a lot of newer shows have been making an effort to “get it right” and show PTSD in a varied and humanizing way. These shows can evoke some powerful responses in viewers who may be seeing their own struggles accurately represented on screen for the first time. With recommendations from our mental health community, we analyzed five shows to see how they portrayed PTSD — and included where you can watch them!
1. “Stranger Things”
Set in the 1980s, the Netflix series “Stranger Things” follows a group of boys as they investigate the strange happenings in their town of Hawkins, Indiana after their friend Will goes missing and is presumed dead. In their efforts, they learn of an alternate dimension called “The Upside Down” that was accidentally created by the Hawkins National Laboratory, a lab that secretly experiments on human test subjects and focuses on paranormal and supernatural research.
In the first season, the character Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) displays symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks to being experimented on in the lab. Mighty contributor Sarah J. Eaton wrote about resonating with the flashbacks Eleven went through as she processed her trauma.
It didn’t take long for me to find a special interest in Eleven. It makes sense, of course. Eleven’s character is full of mystery, and every scene with her leaves you with more questions than answers. As the season progressed, though, her past became more clear. We saw flashbacks of her past, and we saw her reactions to these memories. We saw how haunted she was by the people who hurt her, and how much they still affected her. And as I saw that, I felt a precarious mixture of anxiety and camaraderie… Of course, I know Eleven isn’t a real person who went through trauma. I’ve always looked to fiction for understanding, though, because it isn’t always easy to find in real life.
But the show perhaps deals most poignantly with PTSD symptoms in “Stranger Things 2,” through the character Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who we learn did not die, but was actually abducted by a monster from the Upside Down. As Mighty community member Alyssa H. wrote,
Will’s recurrent encounters with the Upside Down seems similar to a PTSD flashback. Especially the scene where he was possessed by the shadow monster; it’s comparable to that feeling of helplessness and being violated.”
In the sequel to the first season, Will begins having flashbacks that transport him back to the Upside Down. He even sees a doctor (Dr. Owens) who believes he is experiencing the “anniversary effect” some people with PTSD face. “We see this with soldiers,” Dr. Owens says in the show. “The anniversary of the event brings back traumatic memories, sort of opens up the neurological floodgates, so to speak.”
2. “Jessica Jones”
The Netflix original series “Jessica Jones” was based on a Marvel comic of the same name. The show has been praised for the way it has shown PTSD symptoms and triggers in a real and humanizing way. Mighty community member Kayla M. appreciated that Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter) coping wasn’t “perfect,” but was relatable.
I know she doesn’t cope in healthy ways, but I always related to Jessica Jones on Netflix. She was acting like I was — isolating herself, drinking too much, yelling at her closest friends, things like that. She wasn’t the perfect victim, and I liked how it showed that people don’t always handle things the “right” way, and she had to start healing in healthy ways in order to repair her friendships and start putting her life back together. (And defeating the evil villain.) It showed the human side of PTSD, in my opinion, and helped me explain to my therapist how I was feeling.
The show’s focus on trauma and mental illness was intentional. When asked about the way the show dealt with abuse, rape and PTSD, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg told the Los Angeles Times:
Playing them as honestly as possible was very much the objective from the beginning. The tone is meant to be very grounded and real, so you have to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing this over. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally.
3. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” follows Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life in New York City after being rescued from 15-year imprisonment in an underground bunker by a religious doomsday cult. Because the show is a comedy and Kimmy is a quirky character, it can be easy to overlook the fact that the show deals with the impact of trauma and PTSD. Of the show, Mighty community member Robin H. wrote,
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” does a fantastic job. Kimmy wasn’t always aware that some of her actions and thought patterns were a result of her traumatic experiences in the bunker. She struggles a lot with acknowledging the situation and then reopening those memories as a part of her healing process. I love that her healing process isn’t depicted as a perfectly linear, step-by-step checklist. It takes her a long time to be able to even loosely talk about the bunker, and for some time, she lives in a constant fear that everyone knows what happened to her. The show does a great job of showing the internal battles of PTSD and that being brave enough to let yourself think back is a big step.
While it’s important that the show depicts the reality of living with PTSD symptoms, it’s also important that Kimmy is not the “usual” kind of TV character who has been through hardship. We are so used to seeing the hardened, “angsty” characters who have lived through trauma, that it’s refreshing to see such a bubbly character deal with it. Though Kimmy has lived through a pretty unique kind of trauma, her experience ends up being relatable because of how she processes it. In her piece, Mighty contributor Alexis Schuster shares why Kimmy is such an “every person” kind of character.
She does the same thing we all do: she pushes down her feelings and hides them from others in an attempt to look well-adjusted and emotionally stable.
It’s a coping mechanism that works well for her in the bunker, so she sees no issue with applying it to life after while she’s trying to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her emotions find another way to surface. She starts hitting a guy that wants to kiss her. She denies she’s angry. She burps every time she starts talking about her past. She is all of us — not because of the PTSD, but because of the way she tries to hide and avoid confronting it.
4. “The Walking Dead”
“The Walking Dead” is a post-apocalyptic horror show that takes place after a worldwide zombie apocalypse. The series follows sheriff deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as he leads a group of survivors to protect themselves against the zombies, known in the show as “walkers.”
Though the characters in the show aren’t given an official PTSD diagnosis, they exhibit classic signs of trauma. Mighty community member Laura G. explained,
I think “The Walking Dead” does for sure. These people have been to hell and back over and over and over and you can see how the stress and trauma takes its toll on them. Many of the characters experience flashbacks, nightmares, extreme anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks, depression, etc. They’re jumpy and constantly looking over their shoulders.
“Disjointed” is a Netflix original show that follows Ruth Whitefeather Feldman (Kathy Bates) as she runs her marijuana dispensary business, where she employs a team of young folks, including her son. While the show may on the surface appear to be about marijuana, it has been praised for its portrayal of PTSD through Carter (Tone Bell), an ex-Iraq war veteran who is now the dispensary’s security guard.
“[Carter] struggles internally with PTSD and eventually, among his trusted coworkers and friends, tries cannabis as a means of treatment,” Mighty community member Morgan M. wrote. “The show very creatively expresses the signs, impacts and triggers of PTSD.”
Decider contributor Lea Palmieri agrees and argues that the PTSD storyline is the strongest aspect of the series. In her piece, “Sorry, Pot. It’s The PTSD Storyline That ‘Disjointed’ Does Best,” she wrote,
The balance of tone can be a bit off when it comes to comedy and PTSD — it’s in no way the funniest topic to play with. That “Disjointed” decided to address the relationship between PTSD and pot is bold and important, especially for those that might not associate the two, and this show easily could’ve chosen a patient with a different affliction to display the benefits of weed. Through Carter, the show is able to breathe a large amount of heart into a workplace comedy that could’ve been unworthy of such a sensitive subject, and proves to be a true, and necessary, highlight of the season.
This particular depiction is important because it shows a veteran struggling with PTSD in a new way. As Palmieri mentioned, it uses a typical association of PTSD and veterans and instead, uses this “stereotype” to explore marijuana as a possible treatment avenue for people who may be struggling with PTSD symptoms.
What show did we miss? Tell us in the comments.
Image via “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” Facebook page