The Psychology of Inspirational Women: Katniss Everdeen
Welcome to our Psychology of Inspirational Women series, in which Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Janina Scarlet talks us through the mindset of our favorite female characters. Check out other entries in the Psychology of Inspirational Women series: Storm, Korra, Carol and Michonne, and Buffy.
“My name is Katniss Everdeen.
Why am I not dead?
I should be dead.”
Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, who volunteers to take her sister’s place in the monstrous Hunger Games, is a hero and a legend. After going through some of the most horrific events imaginable, Katniss attempts to end her own life. What caused her to try to commit suicide? Does Katniss suffer from a mental health disorder? What stops her from dying and what gives her a reason to live?
To answer the first question, let’s take a look at what leads up to Katniss’s suicide attempt. Katniss was born in the 12th District of Panem, and when she was eleven years old her father was killed in a mine explosion. Her mother, paralyzed with depression, was unable to provide for Katniss and her younger sister, Prim. The two children nearly die of starvation, and Katniss is initially forced to dumpster dive for food. This is when she first meets Peeta, a baker’s son, who, realizing that Katniss was hungry, purposely burned some bread just so that he could give it to her.
Katniss spent the next few years hunting for food for her family with her friend, Gale, who later develops feelings for Katniss; and she, at least in some ways, has feelings for him, too. When Prim is selected to participate in the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers herself as tribute, saving her little sister’s life.
During the Games, Katniss forms an alliance with Rue, a little girl from District 11, who later dies, brutally murdered as a part of the competition. Katniss survives mainly because the sponsors liked her supposed romance with Peeta, District 12’s male tribute, so much that they allowed there to be two victors from the same district.
Shortly after the completion of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta are able to return home. The world isn’t safe, however, and many uprisings take place. When Gale is caught illegally hunting, he is whipped in front of the town by a “Peacekeeper” when Katniss intervenes and gets lashed herself. Katniss and Peeta are again required to participate in the special 75th anniversary Hunger Games. Katniss escapes along with some of the other competitors to the secret District 13, a district that the Government believed to have been destroyed years earlier.
There, most of the rebels are now stationed under the rule of President Coin. Katniss agrees to become the Mockingjay – the leader of the rebellion. In attempts to suppress the rebellions, the Government bombs District 12, Katniss’s home, wiping out nearly 90% of the people living there.
The remaining districts begin to rebel, resulting in continued bombings. Peeta, who was captured during the escape, is tortured and beaten on live television as Katniss blames herself for the multitude of death and suffering that is being done in her name. To make things worse, Peeta was injected with a memory-altering venom, which makes him believe that Katniss is his enemy and needs to be destroyed. Peeta’s mental state is later restored but he is still haunted by what happened to him.
Given her traumatic past, it is not surprising that Katniss wanted to die. She lost nearly everyone she cared about and witnessed more atrocities in three years than most people do in their entire lifetimes. After a while, she seems to give up hope that things will ever get better and wants to end her own life.
Katniss’s symptoms suggest that she might have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). PTSD occurs after someone experiences one or more traumatic events (of which Katniss has experienced plenty).
PTSD is diagnosed when the following symptoms persist for at least one month:
- Intrusions: flashbacks, nightmares, and overwhelming memories of the traumatic experience. Katniss is haunted by the traumatic memories of her “corpse-littered” hometown, seeing Rue being pierced with a spear, and seeing Gale nearly being whipped to death. She also blames herself for most of the horrible things that took place, believing that she should have been able to prevent them.
- Hypervigilance: being overly jumpy, highly alert, and distrusting of others. While these symptoms somewhat reduce over time, Katniss still experiences this to an extent.
- Avoidance: not wanting to be around people, refusing to think or talk about the traumatic circumstances. At the end of the series, years after the end of the war and the last of the Hunger Games, Katniss still refuses to talk about what happened to her, especially with her children. During the rebellion, she at one point completely cuts herself off from others and sleeps for long periods of time, not wanting to be around other people.
Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder include:
- Loss of pleasure
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping or eating
Katniss seems to meet the criteria for both PTSD and major depressive disorder. Believing herself to be “broken,” she has a hard time enjoying herself and is devastated and without hope, especially after the bombing of District 12. She experiences a lot of guilt for not being able to save everyone in the attacks and blames herself for what happened to her sister, to Peeta, and others.
Katniss’s experiences are very similar to those of active duty service members, Veterans, police officers, firemen, doctors, and other people who are responsible for the lives of others. Very often people hold the belief that they should be able to protect everyone, no matter what. The truth is, that is not always possible.
If Katniss were my patient, I would help her analyze her thoughts, such as “I’m broken” and “It’s all my fault” in a logical way to help her see that she might not have been able to prevent many of the tragedies that took place during the war. In addition, I would work with her on reducing her avoidance behaviors, specifically by encouraging her to talk about what happened to her in a safe manner in the session. Most people’s PTSD symptoms reduce when they stop avoiding their past and process the trauma. In the short term, avoiding talking or thinking about what happened might feel better because we don’t have to deal with it. In the long term, however, the symptoms remain and often get worse. By facing the trauma, by opening up to the pain, the person is usually able to process it and heal over time.
The power of stories, such as this one, is that most of us get into them with the purpose of escaping to another world, to forget our pain and hurt, and what often ends up happening is that we end up learning about who we are. Through observing Katniss’s journey, we might be able to recognize our own trauma, as well as the hero within us. We too are Katniss, struggling to survive in a world that sometimes can be cruel and unkind, trying to do what’s right. And even if we do not succeed by our own impossible standards, we’ve made a difference. Like Katniss.
At the end of the series, Katniss is still struggling and still has a long way to go on her healing journey. Hopefully she will one day realize the amount of courage that she has and the number of lives that she had saved. We hereby salute you, Katniss Everdeen, The Girl on Fire.
Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and trauma at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management and Sharp Memorial Hospital. Dr. Scarlet is also a professor at Alliant International University, San Diego. Dr. Scarlet has presented her work at professional psychological conferences, as well as a number of pop culture conventions, such as San Diego Comic-Con. She has been interviewed about her work on Huffington Post Live, as well as numerous podcasts.