Movies and TV shows – wrong about drowning

Any drowning scene from a movie or TV show, more than likely, portrays a drowning victim flailing arms and screaming for help. Sometimes, the victim is even able to gather enough strength to surface repeatedly above water and scream for help. Eventually, depending on the scene, the victim either drowns or is rescued, but this perpetuates an entirely wrong depiction of reality. In reality, there is hardly any splashing, waving or screaming, and the victim quietly sinks beneath the surface of the water, like the way the sun quickly slips beneath the horizon during the last minutes of dusk. Drowning is almost always quick, silent and unspectacular.

Unfortunately, these misleading depictions by TVs and movies do influence how drowning is perceived, and impairs our ability to identify a drowning victim and our subsequent response. Many preventable child drowning incidents happen within a close distance from the parents, as there are no cues to pick on like screaming and splashing to draw their attention.

According to CDC report, on an average 10 people die daily due to unintentional drowning in the US alone. 20% of such victims are children under 14 years of age. For every child that dies, five children need ER care for non-fatal submersion injuries. Some of the non-fatal injury victims suffer brain damage and long term disabilities. About 10% of these drownings, particularly of younger children, happened within a safe distance and under the ‘watch’ of the parents. Parents failed to recognize the child was drowning.

During drowning the victim’s natural instincts takeover, and the victim becomes incapacitated to perform any voluntary action like waving arms for help, moving towards safety or screaming for help. Breathing is essential to survival, but not speech. In order to avoid actual or perceived suffocation, the natural instinct forces the victim to extend arms laterally and press down on the water surface to lift the mouth out of the water to breath – a phenomenon referred to as Instinctive Drowning Response. Unless rescued, the struggle lasts for only 20-60 seconds before the victim loses consciousness and submerges under the water.

What some people confuse flailing of arms and scream of help with drowning is Aquatic Distress (or panic).  Unlike drowning, during aquatic distress the person has mental ability to scream for help, and respond to rescue efforts like holding on to rope, ladder, lifebelt, etc. Nevertheless, the victim still needs help. I personally have been a victim of aquatic distress. That’s for another article.


Drowning is silent, but let us break the silence to get the message out on drowning misconceptions.


– Meghna Sil

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