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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - How War Veterans Defined a Psychiatric Illness


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Dealing with the consequences of a traumatic or life threatening event has no doubt confronted mankind since the earliest of times. In fact, it may have affected mankind more in times when everyday survival was more down to good fortune than good planning. Living in times where there was real threat to life and limb from animals or marauding invaders, undoubtedly, caused consequences that we would now consider as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Post traumatic stress disorder is commonly associated with war experiences. Some of the first records of PTSD being diagnosed was during the US civil war. Soldiers returning from the war were often described as suffering from ‘soldiers heart’ if they suffered from depression or exhibited emotional problems.

During the First World War, soldiers endured awful conditions. They would live in muddy, disease ridden trenches and would be used as guinea pigs for many of the modern worlds latest weapons. If they were not being subjected to chemical warfare or making futile assaults on the enemy positions then they would endure day upon day of artillery shelling as a prelude to a new offensive.

In the British army, these experiences often lead to a condition that was described as ‘shell shock’. In many cases, the sufferer would be shaking uncontrollably and was sent to hospital to recuperate. For others, who did not display such obvious signs, the disorder was often ignored. In some cases this would cause desertion or disobeying of orders which resulted in the charge of cowardice being applied. For some of the men found guilty of cowardice the punishment was to be shot by firing squad.

It was only quite recently that many of these soldiers where given posthumous pardons by the British government. Implicit in the pardon was the recognition that they where suffering from PTSD, however there was still much debate as to whether this was the right thing to do. Critics of the pardon suggest that it is meaningless and wrong to reinterpret history in this way. The army had to preserve morale and discipline and thus had to make some hard and costly decisions. For many of the relatives of these men the pardon was welcomed.

The Vietnam war brought the idea of post traumatic stress disorder, as a recognised psychiatric illness into focus. The difficulties that many returning US Vietnam veterans suffered has been the subject of numerous films. Many found it hard to re-adjust to a civilian life and their lives were blighted by their wartime experiences. Many who suffered from PTSD were not eligible to receive allowances and benefits because the disorder was not recognised as a real condition. This lead to much public pressure to gain a better understanding of the disorder. It was first given the term Post traumatic stress disorder by the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ in 1980.

Since then the disorder is recognised as a valid result of traumatic wartime experiences and allowances are made for returning war veterans. Of course this does not cater for the vast amount of people that experience traumatic events in their everyday lives. People who are raped, involved in car accidents, witness violent crimes and a host of other experiences are often left to pick up the pieces on their own. As more is known of PTSD better ways to deal with these experiences will be found.

Adrian Whittle writes for This site provides information on stress management, Post traumatic stress syndrome and other stress related issues. Visit the site for help to manage stress and ways to deal with traumatic events.


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