The American Sniper’s Psychiatrist


In most movies, psychiatrists are depicted in a negative light, which most certainly affects our public image. Was the psychiatrist in American Sniper portrayed positively or negatively?


First: some disclosure. I wasn’t planning to see American Sniper. My wife and I don’t go to many movies, and none with violence.

Apparently, most psychiatrists have not seen American Sniper either. In reaching out to my colleagues personally or through list-serves, I could not find any who did.

I have seen enough secondary trauma after treating many patients with PTSD from the Viet Nam War during my years in the Army (1975-1977) and those suffering from the aftermath of various kinds of trauma since, including prison inmates.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"32739","attributes":{"alt":"American Sniper","class":"media-image","id":"media_crop_2997971290455","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"3454","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]However, I was too narcissistic and curious to not see American Sniper after a former colleague told me that the psychiatrist in the movie reminded him of me. I didn’t know there was even a psychiatrist in the movie. In most movies, psychiatrists are portrayed negatively, which most certainly affects our public image. Was this a positive portrait? If so, why hadn’t that been publicized?

So this is not really a movie review. It is a psychiatrist review. It is also not about the debate on gun control, though the movie tells the real-life story of a Chris Kyle (the sniper), a high-powered gun, and 1 other, shot by a man who was clearly mentally unstable.

And you may come out of reading this thinking that I starred myself in it, and wondering, if you already haven’t, if I have undue narcissism! My conscious intent, though, was to play a supporting role, representing American psychiatrists.

So, I went to see the movie with a friend who had also suffered from some trauma in his medical career as an emergency physician. I was quickly absorbed in the story and sort of forgot about the psychiatrist.

Then, the psychiatrist appeared for a few brief minutes after Kyle’s more obvious mental deterioration, revealing potentially risky PTSD symptoms after his fourth tour of duty for the War on Terror, and setting records for “kills.”

I started to have mixed feelings about being identified with the psychiatrist. Was he too confrontational during his interview with Kyle? Not empathic enough? Should Kyle’s wife have been included in the interview for what she observed-especially since Kyle was downplaying any problems?

The psychiatrist certainly spent too little time with his patient. Of course, time in the movie was, of necessity, greatly compressed, and was not intended as a reflection of the real managed care limitations on our time with patients.

Yet, this movie psychiatrist seemed to have good insight into the American Sniper and guided him to re-connect with the desire of his authentic self to re-connect with his country and fellow soldiers. As a peer supporter, he tried to help fellow soldiers who were wounded in one way or another, including taking some out to a shooting range.

You could see Kyle clearly recovering all the way to the end of the movie. We all knew the ending because of the just completed trial of his murderer, a fellow Vet who killed Kyle and his friend at a shooting range. Given the extensive psychiatric history of the killer, I was left wondering both about the quality of his treatment, as well as whether Kyle had taken an unnecessary risk.

I then couldn’t help asking what my former colleague saw in the movie psychiatrist that reminded him of me. After all, psychiatrists are rarely seen in action due to the need for privacy and confidentiality, but in his training and work, this colleague did see me many times in action. Here’s his perspective:

“For one thing, the psychiatrist listened. He heard. Then he connected Chris Kyle to other vets. I saw him as sensitive to his patients and going the extra mile.” Later, he added, “The psychiatrist saw that Chris was suffering from PTSD and figured the best treatment was to lead him to other vets suffering so he could help them. I can see you doing the same thing.”

Isn’t this how we want the public to perceive psychiatrists? What we need, more surely, is psychiatric care that can help people with PTSD as much as the psychiatrist apparently did in the movie.

Indeed, this is what Bradley Cooper, the movie star who played Chris Kyle, told host Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” on February 2, 2015. He felt that the essence of the film was to point out the widespread neglect of returning veterans, psychologically, socially, and economically.

To me, the movie was not anti-war or pro-war. Clearly, though, it was pro-psychiatry and pro-psychiatrists. Though it didn’t get an Oscar award, I would give it a Freud award, if one was available to give.

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