What Happened to Shell Shock: A History of PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD is a psychological illness that occurs as a result of a traumatic event. People suffer PTSD after natural disasters, after being a victim of crime or after physical or sexual abuse. Military people who have seen combat often have symptoms of PTSD as a result of the extreme conditions of war. The understanding of what happens to the mind after trauma has led to an evolution in the treatment of this problem.

PTSD Among the Ancients

Many people think PTSD is a recent development in human psychology, but writings as far back as the Ancient Greece mention a soldier that are too spent to do battle and a soldier he calls “The Trembler” that was so traumatized by war that he hung himself.

The Civil War and the Wandering Soldiers

The Civil War brought the dawn of modern warfare, with more efficient weaponry to do the task of killing the enemy. With this efficiency came horrible injuries, which often traumatized not only the injured but also those who witnessed the damage. After the war, soldiers were often so disoriented and emotionally distraught that they were put onto trains with name tags and destination attached to them to get them home to their waiting families. Distraught soldiers often wandered through the countryside, succumbing to exposure and starvation. There was no name for this psychological disorder at the time and no treatment was available. These soldiers were often disparaged as “malingerers” who were trying to get out of military or civilian duties.

WWI and Shell Shock

World War I saw another wave of soldiers traumatized by battle. This time, military people were familiar enough with the symptoms to give it a name, “shell shock” to describe the aftereffects from explosions, rifle fire and the constant experience of comrades being maimed or killed. Symptoms were described in terms such as weariness, sadness, pessimism, abnormal irritability, poor control of temper and defective memory and attention. At the time, psychiatrist believed the problem was caused by a defect in character, and they concentrated on weeding out soldiers that might have this weakness. Of course, these efforts did not put a stop to the problem.

WWII and Battle Fatigue

The events of World War II made it clear that efforts to keep out soldiers that might develop symptoms of war neurosis were not working. Over a million soldiers became debilitated with stress symptoms. It was hoped that rest and a return to civilian life would be enough to heal the person of his emotional wounds. However, as the science of psychiatry evolved, post traumatic stress disorder became better understood and researched.

The Vietnam War and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

The harsh conditions and brutality of the Vietnam War led to a radical increase in PTSD cases in soldiers returning home. These soldiers had difficulty fitting into civilian life and suffered from depression or substance abuse. Some have even committed suicide. The psychiatric community began to devise methods of treatment for these ex-soldiers. In 1979, a bill to implement treatment centers to deal with PTSD problems related to military service was passed. It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association recognized posttraumatic stress disorder as psychiatric disorder in their diagnostic manual.

Iraq and Afghanistan and Increases in PTSD

Technology has only increased the destructiveness of war, and soldiers engaged in combat in recent conflicts continue to experience the emotional trauma and physical exhaustion. Experience has brought more effective methods of treatment and wide range of new medications to relieve the symptoms of those who suffer from PTSD.

Prescott Stubbins is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon who focuses his writing career on health & wellness, fitness, exercise, nutritional science, veterans’ health and other important issues; to learn more about PTSD view these resources from an established professional focusing on veterans’ issues.

JR Olson
J. Rex Olson is a freelance writer based in the greater metropolitan area of Seattle. He enjoys writing for the sake of writing, and likes to contribute material on a wide range of topics and issues. When not writing he loves playing basketball and taking in a symphony.

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