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Psychological Disorders in Forrest Gump

Updated on September 16, 2014


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 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 survives the Vietnam War. Many people are not certain what Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is, or what it entails. As one dives into research you learn about many key aspects of PTSD, such as what triggers the disorder, the actions that proceed the trauma, and coping strategies. It is not until one knows what PTSD is that an adequate diagnosis of Lieutenant Dan from “Forrest Gump” can be mad. By analyzing crucial scenes in the movie and Lt. Dan’s behavior can one from a diagnosis of his disorder and fully come to terms with what it means. When one understands what the disorder is and its effects on a person, one could analyze scenes that are crucial to Lt. Dan and to diagnosing PTSD. With one’s new found knowledge of PTSD we can delve into the social schemas and misconceptions of the disorder and how it is portrayed.

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Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as defined by the DSM-IV is “…exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury…” and then “The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (DSM-IV-TR #309.81). To be put in simpler terms, PTSD is when one experiences or witnesses a traumatic act so severe that one cannot overcome the damage done to ones psyche. The most common experiences that trigger PTSD are: Exposure to violence, harm, or threatening to use of either, sexual abuse, childhood neglect, or the 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 double as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD as men. This could be explained by two factors, the first being that many of the female related diagnoses are miscarriage or stillborn related(Sloan 777), or the second being that stereotypically woman are more sensitive than men. The latter meaning that if a man and a woman were to occur the same shocking stimuli, the man may be able to cope better and move on while his woman counterpart may relive the experience. PTSD is an anxiety disorder, meaning that experiencing this disorder will affect ones level to cope with everyday life and ordinary stimuli. Because it is an anxiety disorder, some of the symptoms of one experiencing it would be: 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 suffering of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As stated above the initial trigger for PTSD is a traumatic experience that one could not overcome. In Lieutenant Dan’s case this stimuli can be argued one of two ways. The first explanation for Lt. Dan’s PTSD is because he was shot, injured, and then handicapped in scene where he fights the war against the Vietnam. Because he came so close to death and was so severely injured, he may not be able to overcome this emotional and physical trauma. The second trigger explanation of Lt. Dan’s disorder is when he survives his war injuries and is forced to live in a world he does not wish to be in. Ironically, Lt. Dan put such a profound positive reward associated with the death in the war, he was traumatically injured 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, for him to not die in this war, it was tearing his hope for the only thing he wanted.

The scene that first 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 eludes that lieutenant Dan is reliving this trauma in his head and will not come to terms that he survived. This scene was chosen because it clearly shows that there was a stimuli that happened in that war that Lt. Dan cannot overcome. This scene shows the symptoms of PTSD and accurately shows key information needed to diagnosis the disorder. In the article Denise Sloan states that “the most reported cases of PTSD are of war veterans” (Sloan 776). In the scene we see that trauma that Lt. Dan occurs in the war, and then we see how it has affected him and how he is reacting. He exemplifies PTSD in his actions by because of his uneasiness, difficulty coping, and inability to accept reality as it is.


The second scene that best represents PTSD and its dilemmas is while Lt. Dan is still in the hospital with Forrest. Throughout this entire montage we observe Forrest partaking in activities in the facility, all the while Lt. Dan is caught in a trance like state and is only seen staring off into the distance. In the scene Lt. Dan is observed passing up food, isolating himself, and being 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 patients suffer along with PTSD. 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 of the experience.

The scene that is most profound in the movie in coping with PTSD is exemplified immediately after Forrest leaves the television broadcasting congratulating him on his Medal of Honor. Upon his leaving we are faced with 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 is 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 to handle one problems. People that suffer with 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 that was chosen for Lt. Dan’s PTSD was one of personal victory and triumph. Lt. Dan is finally able to defeat his PTSD and accept the circumstances that he must live his life 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 a wife, and prosthetic leg. His now clean look makes one believe that he was able to not only adapt to society, but thrive in it. If this was not proof enough for 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 reminder every day 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 always a shred of truth, but often times it is \ over exaggerated. This is the case for those who believe 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 how display violence are likely to be reliving a trauma to them where they were put in danger or had their fight or flight instincts engage. 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 one of a 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 is 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 in the percentage of PTSD victims that will not seek help. This is in part due to another myth that only the week 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” is one of the most simple minded myths to be heard. As earlier explained, anyone who is exposed to stimuli such as, but not limited to violence, harm, sexual abuse, or childhood neglect. It is just narrow minded and senseless to believe that only those who experience war can occur a trauma that alters one psyche severely or permanently. A wide variety of people can suffer from PTSD such as those who: were abused as children, were subjected to watch a scaring incident, or subjected to a stressful environment one cannot cope to. 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 and appeal to a wider variety of viewers. The fact that a veteran was used to represent PTSD is using the stereotypical PTSD victim.

The next myth can be easily explained to why it is believed as truth. “People suffer from PTSD right after they experience a traumatic event” is a very easy misconception to believe. The theory is very logical and makes sense, however many times an individual who will suffer from PTSD will repress there memory or the experienced trauma. This memory will eventually make its way to an individual’s consciousness and can lead one to suffer from PTSD years after one has experienced the trauma.

What was Learned

Because of the research done on PTSD, one has learned the many traumas that can lead to developing PTSD, as well as the many strategies to cope with and overcome ones disorder. Now that what PTSD is has been established, and how it develops, one can now have a solid understanding of what has happened to an individual and can decipher between the myths associated with the disorder. One may have learned that: PTSD can develop overtime id not expressed immediately, PTSD can occur due to watching a trauma instead of experiencing it, Woman are double as likely to have PTSD than men, 10% of America has PTSD, and that with adequate therapy and help, PTSD can be easily overcome and coped with.

Sources/ Works Cited

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.

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.

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890423349.

Zemeckis, R. (Director). (1994). Forrest Gump [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount pictures.


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    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 8 months ago from Pacific Northwest

      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.

    • profile image

      Healthy male 12 months ago

      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.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 17 months ago from Philippines

      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.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 17 months ago from Philippines

      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.