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"Ordinary People": An Analysis by Samhita Vellala


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An analysis of "Ordinary People", a movie portraying the struggle of living with PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) and Survivor's Guilt. This paper considers the accuracy of the symptoms and treatments depicted in the movie, and discusses consistencies/inconsistencies. Media portrayal is discussed as well.

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"Ordinary People": An Analysis by Samhita Vellala

  1. 1. “Ordinary People” An Analysis by Samhita Vellala Robert Redford’s masterpiece, "Ordinary People", quite accurately educates society about PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) and reduces the stigma surrounding this serious mental disorder. Plot Summary "Ordinary People" is a movie that follows the journey of the Jarrett family soon after the death of Buck, one of the two sons of Calvin and Beth Jarrett. The other son, Conrad Jarrett, was involved in the boating accident that caused the death of his brother. Conrad blames himself for his brother’s death, to the point where he attempts suicide. Conrad’s father feels responsible for his suicide attempt, and Conrad’s mother is in denial; she attempts to maintain the appearance of a perfect family. Conrad visits Dr. Berger, a therapist, who helps Conrad change his outlook on life, and helps him to stop living in the past. His girlfriend, Jeannine, also helps Conrad develop a positive outlook on life. Although the movie ends with Beth leaving her family, many emotions are dealt with, and many relationships are mended successfully by the end of the movie. Character Description and Diagnostic Criteria Conrad was a normal highschooler, who is faced with an abnormal, traumatic experience. Conrad seems to be disturbed after the accident that resulted in the death of his brother. He attempts suicide soon after his brother’s death, and stays in the hospital for four months, after which he returns to school. He doesn’t enjoy the things he used to enjoy, and is constantly plagued with flashbacks, and nightmares of the boating accident. Conrad feels hurt, because he believes his mother doesn’t love him. He experiences emotional outbursts of anger, and doesn’t allow himself to express what he is feeling. Additionally, Conrad distances himself from his friends and family, and blames himself for his brother’s death. At first, he is reluctant to seek
  2. 2. help, but eventually reaches out to Dr. Berger, a psychiatrist. With Dr. Berger’s help, Conrad realizes that Buck’s death was not his fault, and he shouldn’t feel guilty for having survived the accident. Conrad meets the criteria for PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Conrad directly experiences a traumatic event (the boating accident where he witnesses the death of his brother in person). He experiences dissociative reactions (flashbacks), where he feels like he is reliving the accident. He avoids stressful feelings related to the accident. For instance, Conrad doesn’t allow himself to feel anger towards Buck regarding the traumatic event, and avoids this emotion, claiming that it makes him feel lousy. Conrad sees himself, and sometimes others, in a negative light. His distorted cognitive processes lead him to blame himself repeatedly, especially for his brother’s death. He has difficulty staying asleep and is restless. These symptoms persist for over a month, and as discussed, obviously result in distress and impairment in social and occupational functioning. These symptoms were not the physiological effects of a substance or other medical condition (DSM-5). The other family members exhibit few symptoms of PTSD (though not to the extent that they meet full criteria) and normal bereavement. Treatment Conrad participated in cognitive therapy administered by Dr. Berger for treatment of his PTSD (and survivor’s guilt), which was successful. Cognitive restructuring played a significant role in Conrad’s recovery. Dr. Berger helped Conrad to reappraise his cognitive distortions, and helped him to consider biases and generalizations from a different perspective. Before therapy, he believed that expressing his anger took too much energy, and was not worth it. However, as he progressed through therapy, he began to realize that expressing his anger was cathartic; therapy helped him face his past, and the feelings associated with it. He learned not to avoid feeling anger, and other emotions as well. An especially significant session of cognitive therapy helped Conrad reappraise the cognitive distortions that led to his guilt, and move on from the past. Overall, cognitive therapy was extremely successful in the treatment of Conrad’s PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (prolonged exposure), medications (SSRIs
  3. 3. and other antidepressants, antipsychotic medications), psychological debriefing, phone hotlines, and crisis intervention are the most common treatments for PTSD (textbook, 167-168). However, cognitive therapy is still an effective treatment approach for PTSD, and was administered accurately in the movie. Most importantly, it was successful in Conrad’s situation. Consistencies/Inconsistencies The description of PTSD in this movie is extremely consistent with what was discussed in this course. In the real-world, stigma surrounds PTSD, and Conrad experiences the effects of this stigma in the movie. The symptoms of PTSD are presented accurately in the movie, and Conrad met the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for this disorder. Other aspects of PTSD were accurately conveyed in this movie, including how the family-systems theory applies to this disorder; Conrad’s experience with PTSD affected his entire family, and ultimately, social environment negatively. Additionally, this movie allowed viewers to gain insight into what it is like to be suffering from PTSD, and consequently reduced the stigma surrounding it. Although the form of therapy (cognitive therapy) emphasized in the movie isn’t a common treatment for PTSD, it is still a validated treatment, and was used in an appropriate manner towards the treatment of Conrad’s PTSD. Overall, "Ordinary People" was a phenomenal movie which raised awareness about and reduced stigma surrounding PTSD across the nation. It brought this self-defeating disorder into the spotlight, and demanded the public’s attention towards it.