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Perks of Being a Wall Flower is a well-known movie based off of the 1999 published book by Stephen Chbosky. It follows the story of a character named Charlie, who is entering his freshman year of high school. As if transitioning into high school isn’t stressful enough, the teen is entering the school year fresh out of hospitalization. Culminating symptoms escalate to a panic attack, which landed him in the hospital, are just one of the many different psychological symptoms that character exhibits throughout the movie. His story highlights the struggels he faces in dealing with a combination of symptoms, and how he navigates everyday life as an individual living with (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) PTSD.
As mentioned, in the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie exhibits symptoms of PTSD and his symptoms are present in three models; biological psychological, and sociocultural. It is apparent that the main character is suffering from mental health problems as he exhibits three out of the four D’s in Abnormal Psychology diagnosis criteria; distress, dysfunction, and danger (to himself). Diagnosis such as PTSD encompasses some symptomatic qualities that anxiety and depression do, but other symptoms of PTSD such as Intrusive thoughts, negative thoughts and feelings, and arousal/reactive symptoms were present enough in the character that viewers could decide that Charlie wasn’t experiencing just anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, the character had been experiencing traumatic events since childhood, starting with being sexually assaulted by his aunt at young age. In the beginning of the movie, we see that Charlie has a strong connection to his aunt and feels a great deal of blame for her death. Her death was a result of a car accident where she was going to get Charlie a “special gift”, and never returned home. This makes the audience think that Charlie is experiencing symptoms of PTSD as a result of guilt, but we later learn that Charlie has such a “connection” to his aunt because she had been sexually abusing him. In addition to the now two traumatic events we’ve learned Charlie experienced, he states that the summer prior to high school, his best friend commits suicide. From our knowledge the friend that committed suicide was the only friend that Charlie had. At this point in the movie we have learned that Charlie now has the feeling of guilt and blame for two deaths in his life, as well as a sexual assault that he hadn’t been addressed because he didn’t receive psychological treatment for it, resulting in his character blocking the memory.
As do many psychological disorders, Charlie exhibits all four clusters of PTSD symptoms. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a: “psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault”.
There are four symptoms of clusters associated with PTSD, the first being Intrusive thoughts. This can be described as “repeated involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event”(Parekh). Charlie exhibits this symptom cluster in the form of flashbacks that are often triggered by evens that provoke the same emotions. For example, there are multiple occasions throughout the movie where Charlie experiences flashbacks during moments where something is upsetting him; i.e. hit sister getting hit by her boyfriend. Another example is when he and another main character, Sam, are romantically involved, he has very somatic flashbacks where he can recall almost all of the event. Because Charlie was so young when experiencing the traumatic event provoked by his Aunt Helen, it can be thought that he has now developed an abnormality in the chemical activity associated with his stress-response system. The movie does not specifically mention the biological factors, but it is apparent he has an increased production of cortisol during these experienced flash backs. Additionally, we see that the biological factor of Charlie’s experience that he is being treated with therapy as well a anti-depressants.
Another symptom cluster that Charlie exhibits is Negative Alterations in Cognitions and Mood. We see throughout the movie that this character often experiences small portions of flashbacks, and cannot remember the entire event (which would explain why he didn’t realize he was a victim of sexual assault until later in the movie). In addition to the lack of remembrance, he also experience feelings of guilt and self-blame for the trauma and its consequences. These feelings of guilt are mostly associated with the death of his Aunt Helen, as well as the suicide of his best friend. Additionally, Charlie expressed negative trauma-related emotions such as fear and shame, as well a feeling alienated from others. In the beginning of the movie, the main character talks about how he is friendless and is afraid to go to high school because he knows will be viewed as “the weird kid who was institutionalized because his friend committed suicide”. On a positive note, Charlie develops a wonderful relationship with his teacher/mentor as a result of this lack of friends. These symptoms are exhibited through the psychological and the sociocultural models. We can see that on the psychological: behavioral level Charlie is maintaining PTSD symptoms through negative reinforcement. He avoids, gains short-term relief from negative experience, and then engages in more avoidance and more intense negative experiences. Charlie’s coping skills with PTSD are leading to a lifestyle filled with distress, dysfunctions, and danger to himself. Throughout the movie we see him isolate himself, get upset and revert to the feelings he felt during the flashbacks, he is unable to interact with his peers (in the beginning of the movie), and at the end of the movie he poses as a danger to himself as we see him pick up a bread knife to commit self-harm (but someone saves him and helps him get to a hospital). Although his treatment for the cognitive experiences associated with PTSD come in the form of therapy and medication, it is prominent throughout the movie that Charlie could benefit from psychotherapy.
In addition to the other two symptomatic clusters, the protagonist expresses Alterations in arousal and reactivity. These symptoms come in the form of irritability/aggression, self-destructive/reckless behavior, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbance. We see an example of sleep disturbance throughout the movie as there are some shots of Charlie lying awake, revisiting memories of certain events. Additionally, we see the examples of irritability/aggression when Charlie jumps in to beat up the jock who is beating up his friend Patrick in the lunch room. It could be said that anyone without mental health problems would step in and stand up for their friend, but two key factors in this instance are that 1. Charlie blacks out and reverts back to flashbacks of his Aunt Helen and 2. Charlie almost beats the jock to death as a result of blacking out. One sociocultural factor that could be contributing to the worsening of his PTSD symptoms include lack of social support and relationship conflicts (i.e. unsupportive or inattentive parents). With a lack of support system to navigate the trauma with, combine with little understanding of how to heal from trauma, can de a deadly duo that haunts those with PTSD.
As the movie continues, we see the development of Charlie’s PTSD, how it effects his everyday life, and the struggle it can bring to one’s life. However, despite the bad we also see Charlie come into contact with a group of friends who really take him under their wing and make sure he feels loved and accepted. Additionally, we see the character finally receive support from his parents and sister, and he seeks help. Although he is institutionalized for a second time, we can see that the treatment is proving to be successful in helping him navigate his trauma. It also shows he and the dr. are taking time for him to self-explore and develop a better understanding of his world with the new findings about trauma he has faced. Perk of Being A Wallflower addresses mental health in a way that highlights the struggles in everyday life, with out dramatizing them through a Hollywood lens. It was encouraging to see that the creators of the film really focused on the internal of what Charlie was feeling, and they promoted how one can get help and still learn to live a functional life with support from friends and family. PTSD is unfortunately a disorder that impact more than just war veterans, and I am hoping that the psychology world continues to take great strides in helping those who have PTSD, continue to cope so they can live a rich life.
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