By Lauren McGrath
*Warning: Contains spoilers for Mockingjay, Part II*
In one of the most tense scenes of Mockingjay, Part II, the newest installment of The Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark is shown softly weeping and banging his head into the side of a wall. The rest of the team invading The Capitol waits, in tension, to make their next move, while Peeta silently breaks down. What happens next is explosive and fast-paced, and results in Peeta snapping out of reality to kill his teammate. But the running, the oil, and the murder was lost on me for a moment—I was locked in on a scared boy who was crying and trying ever so hard to keep a handle on his emotions.
I’ve been there too. I’ve been there as a teenager, as a college student in her dorm room, and as an adult, a woman who I thought would have “grown out of” my own experiences with mental illness. While I watched this scene, I gripped my partner’s hand a little more tightly—and it wasn’t the first time that I’ve felt a sense of camaraderie with the onscreen characters portrayed in The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games is one of the few popular Young Adult geared franchises that deals extensively with mental illness. Throughout the four-part epic, there are many times in which the protagonists experience great agony brought on by what is easily recognized as the result of trauma. Katniss is driven to screaming, collapsing, and finally, dead silence, by the Jabberjays in Catching Fire, despite having unclear knowledge as to what they may mean. During a more peaceful time, while hunting with Gale, the deer she takes a shot at suddenly turns into a flashback of a child she fought against as the newly crowned victor of that year’s Hunger Games.
With the recent backlash against trigger warnings, The Hunger Games’ portrayal of PTSD is incredibly important. It’s realistic in the way it demonstrates the effects of violent traumatic experiences, and also shows the strength it takes to fight past them.
Here’s the thing about living with a mental illness that has volatile side effects: your reality, your sense of safety, can warp at any given moment, and as painful and grueling as panic attacks are, it’s also just plain embarrassing. I’ve come down from panic attacks with my partner holding both my hands, and I’m suddenly unable to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry,” I mumble, again, and again, and again until it ceases to really mean anything. It reduces you to the state of a frightened child, and makes you distrust yourself, your own emotions, and especially the way you deliver them.
Peeta becomes the embodiment of that child. He has his hands bound throughout their run through The Capitol, because of what he might do to his teammates in the event that he loses touch with reality again. He has people watching him at all times for the same reason. I myself have had doctors tell me that it’s best for me to have people around, just to help me talk through my feelings, or, worst case scenario, if I hit a low and sink into a panic attack. Peeta became my hero, more so than Katniss, when he asks the hardest question for any mentally ill person to request: help.
He asks for clarification as to what is real and what is imagined, taking control of his own health and reclaiming the thoughts that The Capitol so violently stole away from him. A few days before I saw the movie, I asked for help as well, finally getting myself the kind of care that I deserve, and I can’t tell you how difficult that was for someone as proud and stubborn as me.
The series had a bittersweet ending, and I appreciated that. A lot of friends of mine who hadn’t read the books says it was “too sad,” and I’ll admit, the speech Katniss delivers to her baby was a bit on the corny side, but everything she said was true. When we have mental illness handed to us, wired into our hearts and brains, our lives will never be perfect, and we’ll face darkness in a way that can feel overwhelming.
Maybe, just maybe, though, we’ll find our own versions of the happiest ending we can have, just like Katniss and Peeta.
Lauren McGrath is an educator, blogger, vegan advocate, maternity health worker, and writer (whew!) living in DC. She wants to be a jack of all trades, and, yeah, maybe master a few as well. Find her at lauren-mcgrath.com or trying to be funny under the twitter handle l0l0mcg.