…was the title that intrigued me in the Independent on Friday. A Royal Society journal has reported studies showing American soldiers being far more likely to suffer PTSD than ours. Why?
One of the conclusions is, that the way soldiers communicate mental distress is culturally determined, although it is completely real to the sufferer. Research with Vietnam veterans suggested that PTSD highlighted the psychological cost of participating in a war that many soldiers felt was unjust. There is a growing belief that Vietnam veterans succumbed to cultural expectations that they were suffering from the trauma of the experience.
In other words, everybody expected them to suffer from this mental disorder … and their unconscious minds responded to this.
UK soldiers are more resistant to the idea of the human mind being fragile in the face of trauma. A fascinating comment is made by Derek Summerfield (King’s College, who has worked extensively with victims of war and genocide). ‘Western culture now emphasises not resilience but vulnerability’, he says.
In other words, instead of thinking in terms of ‘stiff upper lip’ we now think in terms of ‘victim’.
What was really interesting to me was the observation that we’ve isolated trauma, calling it a mental disorder which has its own symptoms and which can be targeted with specialised treatments. But, says the journalist, this has removed trauma from cultural narratives and beliefs that might give deeper meaning. Treating it as an illness makes out that it is value-neutral, but this creates rather than dispels the problem, because very often people’s beliefs give meaning and strength to those who are suffering.
In other words, by divorcing stress from the faith some people have, we’ve made the problem worse because we’re depriving them of the means to understand and deal with the stress.
Patrick Bracken (Bradford University Dept of Health Studies), argues that post-traumatic stress is a symptom of a troubled postmodern world. ‘In most Western societies there has been a move away from religious and other belief systems which offered individuals stable pathways through life, and meaningful frameworks with which to encounter suffering and death.’
The journalist concludes that a diagnosis of PTSD can label some of our reactions to trauma, but in the end it is cold comfort. ‘We cannot replace what we’ve lost’.
Hmm. This is all very interesting but some of it seems questionable to me. For a start, it doesn’t really explain why UK soldiers are less likely to suffer from PTS – because America is a much more religious country than UK, and therefore you would expect the strength of faith there to give purpose and meaning to their experiences … which would mean that they would suffer less, not more.
Although I do think that he’s on to something when he talks about cultural expectations, especially in the US where therapy is so much more common than here.
And I don’t agree with his conclusion that we can’t replace what we’ve lost … that sounds very dramatic, but people can come to one faith or another at any point in their lives. The trauma of war is just as likely to cause people to think more about God, as it is to cause them to lose faith in Him.
I wonder whether the explanation might be partly found in the way we handled WW2 – the famous British self-deprecating sense of humour put the war into a less serious context and was useful for helping people to deal with it.
These are very complicated issues and I don’t suppose we will understand them until enough time has gone by for us to see them in some sort of social and historical context. Another factor is that we have no way of knowing whether our ancestors also suffered from the stress of war, as studies are so recent. Might be an interesting area of research …