Psychopathology from a Clinical Perspective: Analysis of Fictional Character

Abstract

This paper presents the assessment and analysis of a well-known fictional character from the Star Trek franchise Commander Spock. This individual’s psychological state and issues are evaluated based on the regulations and norms outlined in DSM-5. For better clarity and precision, the data relevant to the client’s psychological experiences are taken from a limited segment of the large Star Trek franchise – the last two movies released in 2009 and 2013. These films were chosen for the analysis because they present full information as to the character’s background, development, origin, professional and social interactions. Spock is diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder due to the sudden death of his mother, the destruction of his home planet. The factors contributing to his PTSD are the repetitive bullying in childhood (due to Spock’s bicultural background), and the exposure to the traumatizing emotions (the death of his former Captain Christopher Pike) a year after the onset of PTSD. Spock’s psychological problem is reviewed in terms of its effect on his professional performance, as well as his romantic relationship with Lieutenant Uhura.

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Introduction

This paper provides an assessment and diagnosis of a fictional character based on the criteria outlined in DSM-5. The character selected for this project is Spock from the well-known Star Trek universe. Since the Star Trek franchise includes multiple television series and movies, and the character of Spock may differ in terms of life experiences and features he displays in different episodes, it would be better to limit the research to one particular part of the production. In this paper, the analysis of Spock as a personality will be based on the most recent Star Trek films released in 2009 and 2013 (Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness) and directed by J. J. Abrahams. The two movies provide a detailed presentation of Spock’s life including his childhood experiences and adult life behaviors. In addition, the selected films contain information concerning the character’s family members and their relationships, some influential aspects of his culture and identity formation, his intellectual capacity, professional background, friendships, and workplace relations, as well as his personal life. As a result, Start Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness serve as the solid ground for the analysis of the psychological characteristics of the character and some of the most influential environmental factors and situations that cause psychological issues such as the Dissociative subtype of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. This mental health problem will be the primary focus of the analysis and diagnosis presented in this project.

Background Information

Client’s Presenting Information

Commander Spock serves as a science officer aboard the starship U.S.S. Enterprise. From the point of view of race and ethnicity, Spock is bicultural. He comes from a diverse family where one parent (the mother) is a human from the planet Earth, and the other parent (the father) is Vulcan from the planet Vulcan. The two cultures are very different, and therefore, in childhood, Spock faced the challenges and pressures of identity formation as he lived in a homogenous Vulcan society and had to combine his two ethnicities in order to fit in. The major complication was presented by the mental and psychological differences between Vulcans and humans, as the former assumed lifestyle and worldview based strictly on logic while the latter appreciated emotions and passions. As a child, Spock was bullied by his schoolmates on the regular basis due to his mixed background. As an adult, Spock experienced a recent crisis after witnessing his mother’s death and the total destruction of his home planet along with most of its population. After that incident, Spock began experiencing problems at work unable to withstand the emotional pressures of being a temporary ship captain. He also faced relationship problems due to lack of understanding and communication with his significant other and emotional numbness employed as a defense response to painful feelings and stress. A year later, still under the effect of his attachment trauma, Spock becomes exposed to another emotional shock witnessing the death of his former ship Captain Christopher Pike, which aggravates his response to strong feelings and emotions.

Additional Individuals

Spock’s closest circle includes four additional individuals who are to be included in the assessment.

The first person to take into consideration is Spock’s father Sarek, who serves as an ambassador of his nation. The relationship between Spock and Sarek is close; however, Sarek represents the logical Vulcan culture in the family and is quite reserved emotionally. Besides, ever since Spock’s childhood, Sarek has been having a clear vision of his son’s future within the Vulcan culture and on the home planet. As Spock grew up, he came to the realization that his career path was away from Vulcan and entered the Starfleet Academy on the Earth. His career aspirations clashed with those of his father and emphasized his inner conflict due to his bicultural background.

The second figure to include in the assessment is Spock’s mother, Amanda Greyson, who was human. After marrying Sarek, Amanda has moved to Vulcan permanently. However, she never managed to assimilate to the new culture and remained emotional which made her stand out in the Vulcan society. Spock was affected by his mother’s ethnic background while growing up in an idealistic and proud community of Vulcans. He was bullied at school for his mixed background. The Vulcan children teased him for the purpose to evoke his emotional human side and shame him for that feature viewing it as a flaw and a sign of weakness and inadequacy.

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The third additional individual that should be included in the analysis is Spock’s partner Nyota Uhura, a woman from the Earth. Spock and Uhura met at the Starfleet Academy while she was a cadet and he worked as an instructor. Uhura was one of the top students and eventually made her way to the U.S.S. Enterprise to work along with Spock as a communications officer. Spock and Uhura began to experience relationship problems after the death of Spock’s mother and the destruction of Vulcan. Uhura claims that after his mother’s demise Spock began to engage in risky and dangerous behaviors, stopped being open to communication, and withdrew himself from the relationship.

Finally, the fourth additional person to consider is James Kirk, Spock’s superior at work, who eventually became his close friend. Kirk was the one to expose Spock to a large amount of emotional pressure in order to compromise his professionalism as a ship captain. Under Kirk’s influence, Spock first came to the realization that his emotional problems and stress could negatively affect his career.

Why the Additional Individuals Were Included

All of the additional individuals are either the constant participants in Spock’s everyday life or the influential figures in his identity formation process. Kirk and Uhura are directly influenced by Spock’s emotional problems. His interaction with these two individuals reflects his current ability to function as a part of society and as a professional. His relationship with his parents is the key to the past experiences that may have affected his personality and choices as an adult.

Diagnosis

Spock is diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder of dissociative subtype. DSM-5 outlines four main triggers of this disorder: sexual assault, serious injury, and the exposure to or threat of death (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The latter condition (the exposure to death) is the event experienced by the client. Spock watched his mother die in a very sudden manner. That way, his PTSD symptoms are the outcomes of the severe emotional shock he had experienced at that moment. Besides, DSM-5 includes the description of the dissociative subtype of PTSD that is characterized by two primary types of behavior such as depersonalization and derealization (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These behaviors may occur separately or simultaneously in an individual suffering from PTSD. Depersonalization is characterized by the perception of one’s self as unreal or disconnected whereas derealization is expressed by the view of the surrounding environment as not real (Wolf, 2013).

In Spock’s conversation with his significant other, he admitted that the feelings he had experienced after his mother’s death and the destruction of his home planet (fear, loneliness, anger, and confusion) were extremely stressful and painful for him. As a result, Spock confessed that he had made a decision never to feel them again. In other words, he chose to shut out his feelings in order to launch a defense mechanism preventing him from being hurt and stressed again. Consequently, his emotional numbness resulted in the engagement in risky behaviors and the refusal to discuss his emotions with his significant other which she took as indifference. In turn, it is possible to characterize the client’s behavior as dissociation from emotions and feelings through derealization. The events in Star Trek: Into Darkness take place one year later than those of the first film, and that way, it is established that Spock’s PTSD symptoms have been persisting for 12 months which is long enough for diagnosing. To sum up, the client’s state can be assessed as a dissociative type of PTSD that is specifically characterized by more pathological forms of dissociation than the low level of self-awareness and a habit to zone out (Wolf, 2013).

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As outlined by Lanius et al. (2015), DSM-5 suggests the assessment of the dissociative subtype of PTSD taking into consideration such features associated with it as the higher level of functional impairment, and the increased suicidality (in this case, Spock’s risky behaviors can be viewed as such). The aforementioned features are the characteristics of dissociative PTSD in particular as compared to the symptomatic of individuals with regular PTSD.

Risk and Resilience Factors

Risk Factors

Two of the main dissociative PTSD risk factors mentioned by Lanius et al. (2015) are repeated traumatization and stressful experiences that took place prior to the ultimate PTSD trigger. Spock’s bicultural background and the resulting childhood bullying experiences can be classified as the primary stressors of his dissociative response later in life. Being raised in a society where emotionality and the display of feelings are criticized and characterized as weaknesses and flaws, Spock was likely to undergo an internal conflict struggling to meet the expectations of the Vulcan culture but being psychologically unable to match all of its requirements. The evidence of his inner crisis are his conversations with parents as he, as a child, attempted to understand why he is considered inadequate by his schoolmates, and when he had doubts about undergoing Kolinahr, the Vulcan practice designed to purge the emotions. The young man’s hesitation and helplessness are visible in his interactions with his parents and the attempts to find answers and solutions to his internal issues in the outside world. As a mix of both cultures, Spock has been experiencing a lack of belonging to either group. Besides, Spock’s choice to pursue a career on the planet Earth and keep the distance from Vulcan signifies that he did not feel comfortable in that environment due to the social pressure and judgments regarding his roots. All in all, the main risk factor for the client to develop dissociative PTSD as a response to painful feelings is his challenging relationship with his own emotional nature and the overall perception of emotions as the source of weakness, confusion, inefficiency, and suffering he has developed since childhood. Another influence is contemporary; it is the reaction of Spock’s significant other to the problem. Instead of showing compassion and understanding, she criticizes his behaviors and adds to the pressure and stress her partner is experiencing. The negative response of the close ones, misinterpretation, and downplay of the PTSD symptoms is some of the significant risk factors as described by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2015).

Resilience Factors

As mentioned by Agaibi and Wilson (2010), the relationship between vulnerable and resilient individuals can be viewed based on their attitude towards the coping practices; namely, the individuals who evaluate stress from the emotional perspective as exceeding their capacity to cope are exposed to more risk in comparison the persons practicing problem-centered approach based on logic, analysis, and self-improvement. As a practical and pragmatic individual (due to his Vulcan upbringing), Spock is resilient to multiple stressors and is likely to be more responsive to treatment. This resilience factor is referred to as “the coping confidence” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2015).

Psychosocial and Family Issues

While the likeliness of being married or in a relationship is equal for the individuals affected by PTSD and people living without this problem, the former are three to six times are more likely to break up or divorce due to a higher level of marital distress (Monson & Taft, 2005). The couples where one of the partners is affected by PTSD report dysfunctional communication and lack of intimacy. This tendency occurs under the influence of the emotionally reserved behaviors of the individual with PTSD. Some of the most typical factors that increase the level of marital distress are the fear of intimacy experienced by people with PTSD and emotional numbing (Monson & Taft, 2005). Both of these behaviors are present in Spock, and they have already produced a negative impact on his relationship with his partner. However, as reported by multiple studies, such behavioral patterns are typical for the early stages of the effect PTSD makes on romantic relationships (Monson & Taft, 2005).

Moreover, it is crucial to take into consideration the fact that the experience that triggered Spock’s PTSD was an attachment trauma – a witnessed death of a parent and a home planet. One of the most common outcomes of this type of trauma is acquired insecurity in reference to future attachments (Barker, n.d.). The negative impact of Spock’s attachment trauma has caused his loss of security in the existing romantic relationship with Uhura that is expressed in the lack of trust and his unwillingness to confide his emotional concerns in her. As a result, the female partner is left feeling ignored and avoided, and, as soon as Spock began to engage in risky behaviors, she also started to feel as if her partner forgot to take into consideration the effect it had on her.

Career and Vocation

Commander Spock serves as a science officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. His military duties and his obligations as a first officer involve being able to take over the role of the ship captain when needed. However, as his outburst of aggression and attack on Kirk demonstrated, his emotional stability is compromised by the attachment trauma which makes him inadequate for his professional responsibilities. In addition, Spock’s interaction with Captain Pike’s death has caused a repeated negative emotional experience exposing the Vulcan to the same feelings that had traumatized him in the first place. Spock’s professional relationship is affected in a similar way to his romantic one as Kirk notices that his science officer questions his every decision.

Legal and Ethical Issues

As Spock occupies an important position at one of the largest starships of the Federation, his professional competency, integrity, and suitability for the duty is a matter of state importance. Inappropriately diagnosed or inadequately treated, the first science officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise is likely to cause significant damage that may result in the loss of lives of the crew members or the development of international conflicts. As a result, the diagnosing and treatment of Commander Spock are to be extremely accurate and careful as a person of his profession is in charge of many lives and some global matters. That way, working with a client from this career field and high rank the therapist becomes responsible for the affairs of increased significance both legally and ethically. It is strongly recommended that while the symptoms of PTSD persist Commander Spock should not be clear for duty due to the safety concerns in reference to the client and the individuals his unprofessional behavior may affect.

Continued Assessment

Continued assessment is required because the posttraumatic stress of the client is evaluated after a lengthy period since the onset and his numbing of the emotions makes it unclear to which degree his professional activities and his personal life are affected by the disorder. As a result, a self-report questionnaire or a rating scale is required in order to distinguish whether the client tends to re-experience the traumatic event (nightmares, flashbacks) or to be in a state of increased emotional arousal (both of the behaviors are typical for the dissociative type of PTSD). The client’s restricted range of emotions as normal conduct that originates in his culture complicates the process of identification of the disorder symptoms and the differentiation between the clinical abnormalities and cultural peculiarities in the client’s behavior.

Treatment Recommendations

The treatment recommended for this client is cognitive behavioral therapy or cognitive processing therapy (DeAngelis, 2008). These approaches are likely to be very effective due to the client’s logical and pragmatic personality type and high capacity of analysis, increased level of awareness, and greater self-control. Spock is expected to respond well to the scientific explanations of his behavior and demonstrate little or no opposition to the conclusions of the therapy. Besides, the support of the individuals comprising the client’s close circle of friends and relatives is necessary due to the adverse effect the attachment trauma has produced on his interpersonal relations. In particular, the additional individuals mentioned in this assessment (Uhura, Sarek, and Kirk) are to be viewed as the most essential sources of support because they have the highest level of influence on Spock from the emotional perspective. In addition, as a follow-up measure, a comprehensive report as to the client’s behavioral changes, professional performance, and the presence of signs and symptoms of PTSD is required from Uhura and Kirk. Such evidence would provide a better perspective as to the therapy results. However, the personal attachment between the additional individuals and the client creates a limitation to its reliability. Cognitive processing therapy is recommended as the core approach to Spock’s PTSD treatment as his coping skills and resilience are quite strong, so there is no visible need for any complementing medications. Besides, a year after the onset of PTSD, Spock has not shown any unreasonable outbursts of emotion, violence, or rage attacks, he was capable of fulfilling his professional duties without any major crises. However, due to the stressfulness of his career path and the recent personal encounter of the loss of two meaningful individuals (Pike’s demise and Kirk’s temporary death), Spock’s emotional stability should be reassessed in terms of the effect of the repetitive exposure to the attachment trauma on the existing PTSD.

References

Agaibi, C. E., & Wilson, J. P. (2005). Trauma, PTSD, and resilience: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 8(3), 195-216.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Posttraumatic stress disorder. Web.

Barker, G. (n.d.). The effects of trauma on attachment. Web.

DeAngelis, T. (2008). PTSD treatments grow in evidence, effectiveness. American Psychological Organization, 39(1), 40.

Lanius, R., Miller, M., Wolf, E., Brand, B., Frewen, P., Vermetten, E., & Spiegel, D. (2015).

Dissociative subtype of PTSD. Web.

Monson, C. M., & Taft, C. (2005). PTSD and intimate relationships. PTSD Research Quarterly, 16(4), 1-8.

U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. (2015). Effects of disasters: Risk and resilience factors. Web.

Wolf, E. J. (2013). The dissociative subtype of PTSD: Rationale, evidence and future directions. PTSD Research Quarterly, 24(4), 1-8.

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