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COMMENT: PTSD Portrayed In Fiction - Helpful Or A Hindrance?

Ahmed Al-Nahhas, Partner in the Military Claims Team at Bolt Burdon Kemp, on how PTSD is portrayed in fiction, and whether it is helpful or...

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By Ahmed Al-Nahhas, Partner in the Military Claims team at Bolt Burdon Kemp

It is quite common these days to see portrayals of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in literature, on television or in film.

Sometimes it is core to the plot – for example, in the 1970s film ‘Coming Home’ which focused on the Vietnam War and the struggles of a returning veteran. The film was released at a time which coincided with a growing understanding of what PTSD was and how it affected military personnel.

These portrayals of PTSD are not always rooted in reality.

It is said the character Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes suffers from PTSD and most recently, the press has been filled with mentions of PTSD after a character in the new BBC drama, 'Bodyguard', displays symptoms of the condition after serving in Afghanistan.

But are these portrayals of PTSD in fiction helpful? Or could they damage the conversation around this very serious condition, providing false information and a dramatised version of events?

On the whole, I would argue these portrayals are helpful, but we should first understand the problem.

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Official figures for the number of service personnel suffering from PTSD are low (around 0.2%) but this, I suspect, is misleading and a combination of two things.

The first being that service personnel are more reluctant to complain about symptoms during their service because, for example, they fear the effect it may have on their careers.

The second is that PTSD can manifest months or even years after a traumatic event, so many veterans who suffer after the end of their service might not be taken into account in the official figures.

The Ministry of Defence acknowledges these challenges and most recently has launched an initiative (in conjunction with the Samaritans) to help raise awareness of the condition and encourage veterans to seek help.

What we also know is that recognition of PTSD is growing and so the number of veterans being treated is rising.

According to the charity Combat Stress, they receive more than 2,000 referrals from veterans suffering from mental health problems - a 143% increase compared to ten years ago and on average, the charity finds it takes veterans 12 years to seek help for mental health problems.

PTSD is by its nature a complex condition, but there are options for treatment and management of it. We know that early assessment increases the chances of that treatment being successful, but 12 years is too long for someone to suffer alone and any delay might make the condition worse.

Anything that can help sufferers recognise their own symptoms and give them the confidence to seek help must be a good thing.

It is here where portrayals of PTSD in television programmes or in films can be crucial.

Using a cultural touchstone like the latest blockbuster television show can help open up the conversation and even, in some cases, help a veteran's family recognise their loved ones symptoms and seek support.

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(Picture: US Department of Defense).

No two people’s reactions to traumatic events are the same. Everyone deals with trauma differently and can display varying symptoms of PTSD.

We often see a sharp contrast between service men and women in how they experience the condition, for example. While it is difficult for fiction to depict the full range of these symptoms, it is certainly helpful to see representations of this condition on our screens.

Bolt Burdon Kemp is arranging a Military Conference in London on Wednesday 26 September in London to hear more about issues which impact the return to Civvy Street, including PTSD, through a series of talks by leading lawyers, experts and charities. For more information contact ahmedal-nahhas@boltburdonkemp.co.uk.

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