I am a psychology major in Illinois who is also minoring in philosophy. I have always had a passion for writing and enjoy it immensely.
Portrayal of Mental Health in Forrest Gump
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that is portrayed in many different lights. In the movie Forrest Gump, we see this disorder portrayed by an individual who survived the Vietnam War. Many people are not certain what PTSD is, or what it entails. As you begin your research, you will learn about many key aspects of PTSD, such as what triggers the disorder, the actions that progress the trauma, and coping strategies. It is not until you know what PTSD is that an adequate diagnosis of Lieutenant Dan can be made. By analyzing crucial scenes in the movie and Lt. Dan’s behavior, you can form a diagnosis of his disorder and fully understand what it means. With your newfound knowledge of PTSD, you can now delve into the social schemas and misconceptions of the disorder and how it is portrayed.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as defined by the DSM-IV, is “…exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury… The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” (DSM-IV-TR #309.81) In simpler terms, PTSD is when one experiences or witnesses a traumatic act so severe that one cannot overcome the damage done to one's psyche. The most common experiences that trigger PTSD are exposure to violence, harm, or threat of either, sexual abuse, childhood neglect, or experiencing an unprecedented disaster or death.
The most common people to report having PTSD are veterans, but many other cases are reported with no affiliation to war (Paulus 170). “In America, 7.8% of the population is diagnosed with PTSD, 10.4% of woman in America are diagnosed with PTSD while only 5% of men are” (Sloan 776). It is troubling to see that woman are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with PTSD. This could be explained by two factors: the first is that many of the female-related diagnoses are miscarriage or stillborn related (Sloan 777); the second is that stereotypically, women are more sensitive than men—if a man and a woman were to occur the same shocking stimuli, the man may be better able to cope and move on while his woman counterpart may relive the experience. PTSD is an anxiety disorder, meaning that experiencing this disorder will affect one's level to cope with everyday life and ordinary stimuli. Because it is an anxiety disorder, some of the symptoms include difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy and easily startled, and increased anxiety and emotional arousal (Paulus 170).
Portrayal of PTSD
In the movie Forrest Gump, the character Lieutenant Dan exhibits clear symptoms of PTSD. As stated above, the initial trigger is a traumatic experience that he could not overcome. In Lieutenant Dan’s case, this trigger can be argued to be one of two things. The first is that he was shot, injured, and then, handicapped as a result of his fight in the Vietnam War. Because he came so close to death and was so severely injured, he may not have been able to overcome both the emotional and physical trauma. The second trigger is when after he survives his war injuries, he is forced to live in a world he does not wish to be in. Ironically, Lt. Dan put such a profound positive reward for dying in battle that he was traumatized by being ripped away from his destiny. Lt. Dan was excited to die in the war because every man in his family tree has fought and died in every American war. Him not dying in the field tore his hope for the only thing he wanted.
The first scene that best represents his symptoms of PTSD is when Lt. Dan rips Forrest out of Forrest’s bed in the hospital and yells at him for saving his life and blaming him for becoming crippled. He continues to scold Forrest and tells him that “it was his destiny to die in that war." This suggests that Lt. Dan is reliving this trauma in his head and will not come to terms with his survival. This scene was chosen because it clearly shows that there was a stimulus in that war that Lt. Dan could not overcome. It also shows the symptoms of PTSD and accurately presents key information needed to diagnose the disorder. In the article, Denise Sloan states that “the most reported cases of PTSD are of war veterans” (Sloan 776). In this scene, we see the trauma that Lt. Dan experiences in the war, how it has affected him, and how he is reacting. He exemplifies PTSD in his actions—his uneasiness, difficulty coping, and inability to accept reality as it is.
The second scene that best represents PTSD and its complications is when Lt. Dan is still in the hospital with Forrest. Throughout this entire montage, we observe Forrest partaking in various activities in the facility while Lt. Dan is caught in a trance-like state and is only seen staring off into the distance. In this scene, Lt. Dan passed up food, isolated himself, and became overly anti-social. This is representative of PTSD because many times after a trauma occurs, the immediate aftermath is social seclusion or isolation (Sloan 778). These same symptoms are shared with depression, which many PTSD patients also suffer from. Lt. Dan may exhibit many of these behaviors because he is caught in his head reliving the experience and trying to cope with the aftermath.
The scene that most profoundly exemplifies coping with PTSD is when, immediately after Forrest leaves the television broadcast congratulating him on his Medal of Honor, we face a very torn up Lt. Dan. We later observe that he has been living his life in a run-down motel, indulging in obscene amounts of alcohol and getting very familiar with the local streetwalkers. This shows the harsh reality of what horrors Lt. Dan has been subjected to. His inability to adjust himself to his new life or his overwhelming anxiety disorder drove him to use alcohol as a self-medicating device, as many others do when unsure how to handle their problems. People that suffer from PTSD often have trouble adjusting to the normal hustle and bustle of society and find themselves in a similar predicament to Lt. Dan.
The final scene was one of personal victory and triumph for Lt. Dan. He is finally able to defeat his PTSD and accept the circumstances that he must live with while fishing for shrimp with Forrest. In this scene on the shrimp boat, Lt. Dan comes to an enlightenment and comes to peace. He is no longer a high-strung, anxious individual but one who has come to terms with his life and tragedy and betters himself from it. From that point, the next time we see Lt. Dan is at Forrest’s wedding where he shows up very well-dressed, clean-cut, and shaven, with his wife, and a prosthetic leg. His clean look makes one believe that he was able to not only adapt to society but also thrive in it. If this was not proof enough of his recovery from PTSD, we see that Lt. Dan is married to a presumably Vietnamese woman. If he was not fully recovered she would be a constant reminder of the war he fought in and the trauma that he sustained; but instead, he sees her as just a woman that he loves.
Myths and Misconceptions
For every myth or rumor, there is a shred of truth, but oftentimes, it can be over-exaggerated. This is the case for people who believe that those with PTSD are violent and unpredictable. There have been cases where an individual with PTSD has become violent and displays unpredictable behavior. However, there are many more cases where the individual lives a nonviolent life and may seem very normal. Just because a person is not violent does not mean they do not have PTSD. Those who display violence are likely to be reliving a trauma. It is not the norm for those with PTSD to have a psychotic break, but if someone with PTSD has a psychotic break and their trauma was a form of life-threatening behavior, they may become violent. However, this is not the norm and is not common for those with PTSD.
“People with PTSD cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.”
This common misconception can be attributed to the category in which PTSD is in. PTSD is an anxiety disorder, meaning that those who have it can have minor anxiety issues, or problematic anxiety episodes. This myth stems from the extreme side of the scale in which it is believed that if one has PTSD they will occur a nervous breakdown. Some individuals with PTSD will have enormous amounts of stress and anxiety and may not be able to cope with the additional stress of the work environment. Although this is true for a small percentage of people, it should not be conceived as the norm for those with PTSD.
“Once people develop PTSD they will never recover.”
This may be the most untrue of all the rumors about PTSD. On the contrary, those who seek out help for their PTSD are likely to be able to successfully overcome their diagnosis, and at a bare minimum develop successful coping skills. This myth is based on the percentage of PTSD victims that will not seek help. This is in part due to another myth that only the weak-minded can suffer from PTSD. With the social stigma that only the weak will suffer from PTSD, many refuse to get treatment, leading them into a life where the will not be able to overcome the object of their PTSD.
“PTSD only affects war veterans.”
This is one of the most simple-minded myths to be heard. As previously explained, anyone who is exposed to stimuli such as, but not limited to violence, harm, sexual abuse, or childhood neglect can develop the disorder. It is just narrow-minded and senseless to believe that only those who experience war can experience a trauma that alters one psyche severely or permanently. This was prevalent in Forrest Gump as the PTSD victim was assigned to a war veteran. This may have been done to be easily recognized by a broader audience. A veteran was used as a stereotypical representation of PTSD.
“People suffer from PTSD right after they experience a traumatic event.”
This is a very easy misconception to have. The theory is very logical, however many times, an individual who suffers from PTSD will repress their memory or the experienced trauma. This memory will later make its way back to an individual’s consciousness and can lead them to suffer from PTSD years after they have experienced the trauma.
Because of the research done, one has learned the many traumas that can lead to developing PTSD as well as the many strategies to cope with and overcome one's disorder. One can now have a solid understanding of what has happened to an individual and can decipher the myths associated with the disorder. One may have learned that: PTSD can develop over time, if not expressed immediately; PTSD can develop from witnessing a trauma, not just experiencing it; women are twice as likely to have PTSD than men; 10% of Americans have PTSD; and with adequate therapy and help, PTSD can be overcome.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890423349.
Paulus, E., Argo, T., & Egge, J. (2013). The Impact of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder on Blood Pressure and Heart Rate in a Veteran Population. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(1), 169-172. Retrieved March 16, 2014, from the Ebsco Host database.
Sloan, D., & Daniel, L. (2013). Written Exposure Therapy for Veterans Diagnosed with PTSD: A Pilot Study.. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(6), 776-779. Retrieved March 16, 2014, from the Ebsco Host database.
Zemeckis, R. (Director). (1994). Forrest Gump [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount pictures.
Kaitlyn on November 12, 2019:
This article is very interesting indeed. I have always loved Forrest Gump. The lessons and evolution that goes on throughout the movie. I was actually hoping in this article to find other representations of other psychological disorders found in this movie among the different characters. I always thought of Jenny as having PTSD from what happened with her father when she was a child. That trauma which led her to substance abuse, living hazardously. The depression she went through. I know this is an old article would like a second opinion if someone reading this has one.
Lori Colbo from United States on April 13, 2017:
What an fascinating article and a creative way to teach people about PTSD. I and two sons have PTSD and it can be quite disruptive to one's life but with good therapy and sometimes medication (for nightmares and depression), or at very least get a better quality of life.
In Forrest Gump I wonder if Jenny didn't have it also. Her father abused her. I'm more inclined to see her as just very disturbed. She finds peace in the end, as does LT Dan. Such and incredibly moving movie dealing with serious issues. Forrest himself is the overcomer but his innocence and love for those around him help them as well. Great stuff here.
Healthy male on December 11, 2016:
Thank you for writing this article. This is filled with so much helpful information about PTSD that is linked to a common movie that most people have seen. I found it extremely helpful and am glad this has been made avalible.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on July 18, 2016:
By the way, I am going to share this hub with all of my followers. I hope they like it as much as I do.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on July 18, 2016:
The first time I saw Forrest Gump, I simply couldn't understand nor appreciate it. But recently I saw it again and I cried and cried. It is really a beautiful movie.
The story of Lt. Dan is interesting, and your article made me appreciate so much more how his character was so carefully written and how the acting of Gary Sinise was so excellent.
I was also surprised to learn that PTSD is not just experienced by war veterans, but also by "Exposure to violence, harm, or threatening to use of either, sexual abuse, childhood neglect, or the experiencing an unprecedented disaster or death."
This would mean many people in daily life have experience PTSD and will continue to do so.
I very much appreciate your articles about movie characters and their psychology. Thank you very much.