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How the Final Season of 'Supergirl' Perfectly Captures PTSD

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When I hear “Supergirl” I automatically think of two things: my favorite TV show and one of the few female-leading superheroes. Supergirl —also known as Kara Zor-El, is the infamous Superman’s cousin in the show. She came to Earth to protect Superman as he grew up, but was stuck in the Phantom Zone for 24 years, so when she finally came to earth, Superman was all grown up and he certainly didn’t need any protection. Meanwhile, Kara hadn’t aged a day due to being in the Phantom Zone.

• What is PTSD?

For the first five seasons, Kara brings up being in the Phantom Zone many times, but never discusses it further. It’s merely a brief mention in conversations before she moves on. The most Kara had said about the Phantom Zone before the sixth season is that it’s “cold” and “dark.” However, in the final season, one of Supergirl’s biggest enemies sends her back to the Phantom Zone, leaving her trapped once again, and this time things turn out differently when she returns to Earth.

While her friends were figuring out how to save her, viewers finally got to see what the Phantom Zone consisted of. For the first time, we saw that it’s filled with phantoms that make people relive their worst nightmare again and again. For Supergirl, this meant losing her powers and seeing her family and friends die repeatedly. In the show, these are called “Fear Visions.” And even after she gets back to Earth and the phantoms are gone, there are a lot of signs that point to Kara having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her experience.

Symptoms of PTSD include avoidance, lacking interest in activities you once enjoyed, being easily startled or frightened, always being on guard for danger, and trouble concentrating. Additionally, PTSD often includes having intrusive thoughts, such as reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again, recurrent unwanted memories of the traumatic event and irritability or anger outbursts due to the traumatic event. Throughout the sixth season of Supergirl, all of these symptoms are present.

As Kara returns to Earth, trauma appears to overwhelm her. She starts having what’s clinically referred to as “flashbacks” of being trapped with the phantoms. The show replays the look of pain on her face as the phantoms take over her thoughts, and viewers watch as Kara relives her trauma again and again. The phantoms created lingering panic about the possibility of her friends and family getting hurt.

Due to this, Kara pushes the rest of her life away, focusing solely on being Supergirl. This means that she quits the job that she loves, pushes away friends and colleagues, and continues to have flashbacks — even in the middle of saving the day. Eventually, she stops living her normal life altogether. She’s afraid of being Kara because it means putting Supergirl aside — which could lead to the people around her getting hurt because she wasn’t there to save them.

And while the show never brings up PTSD directly, the panic that Supergirl feels is something I can heavily relate to. Obviously, I’m not Supergirl by any means, but I do feel panic when I think about my trauma. I have flashbacks the same way Kara does, except instead of freezing, I tend to cry in my room as I relive the events. There are times I have unwarranted anger, the same way Supergirl does when her friends aren’t saving the day quickly enough. There are also times I push people away due to my trauma because I don’t want them to get hurt.

Additionally, when I think about how Kara portrays the Phantom Zone the first time versus how she portrays it after returning the second time, I think a lot about how I coped with my own trauma. Just like Kara, my primary coping skill was pretending the trauma hadn’t affected me at all — that I was completely fine. However, when I was forced to face it, I realized my trauma had affected me a lot. I just never took the time to process what happened to me. And when I was forced to face it, those years of minimizing my trauma came back to bite me as I finally began to realize that what I went through wasn’t normal — the same way Kara finally acknowledges her own trauma.

So while the show never outright calls Kara’s flashbacks and behavior post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, I still think it’s groundbreaking that they would include PTSD-like symptoms at all. It sends the message to everyone watching that even a god-like superhero can struggle with mental illness, which is a message that needed to be sent. Many victims of trauma never speak up or get help due to thinking their trauma “isn’t that bad,” and I think seeing that even a superhero can go through trauma can be extremely validating to viewers. It may even encourage others to talk about their own traumas and realize they’re not alone.

Seeing Supergirl show how traumatic events can affect even the strongest of people gives me hope that one day society will also see that having PTSD isn’t a sign of weakness. PTSD is a legitimate mental illness that can make it hard to function in day-to-day life, and it can happen to anyone. And that was an important message to send.

Image via “Supergirl’s” Facebook

Originally published: December 9, 2021
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