…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’.

(Ethan Watters)

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 …





  1. Really, really interesting post gill, and some good comments. I do think we are quite unique in the UK in the way we deal with stress and loss, we seem to accept that we just have to get on with life and accept it. Hope your keeping well and enjoying this glorious weather. 🙂


    1. Thanks, Barmac – glad you found it interesting too! The weather is gorgeous and I’m just about to get out into it.

      Do hope you are feeling a bit better and that things are beginning to settle down for your parents.


      1. Wow, glad that has been sorted comparatively quickly. I’m sure you’ll all feel apprehensive until it’s over, but I do hope it goes very well and will give Dad a new lease of life. My mum in law had a pacemaker for many years.


  2. I agree with Bushka. There is great influence and power to cultural expectations. In the case of PTSD, I think that this is part of an effort on the part of the Americans to turn all differences between human beings into syndromes that can then be treated. If someone is a little different from the norm, they right away find a syndrome to explain it… and it starts in school, when some children don’t take much interest in their studies. I think the ‘stiff upper lip’ is preferable to ‘letting it all hang out’, which is what I encountered when visiting America. But as others have said before me, all of the west is quick to follow the American example… not necessarily those aspects which I most admire about the Americans. Having studied a bit of history, I have no doubt that all wars have terrible traumas. The question is only whether or not they had the ‘syndrome’.


    1. Thank you, Shimon, for your considered reflection. I think it’s a good thing that people now take more seriously the effect that war can have on soldiers, knowing how much they suffered in the first World War with being labelled cowards if they couldn’t take it any more. But there’s a whole lot of difference between that, and treating every soldier as a victim. After all, soldiers join armies in order to fight wars.


  3. Very interesting Gilly. Having lived in the States for 28 years I would say that there are huge cultural differences/expectations in the way stress and many other things are managed. I am saddened to say that we Brits are now catching up with so much of what has gone on in the States, and our stiff upper lip…seems to be a bit droopy these days!


  4. Mmmmm…..Very nteresting…..:roll: I’m more inclined to the ‘cultural expectecttions’ and ‘Cultural Self Perception’….the latter implying the way we ee ourselves in relation to others… What I like to refer to – rather amusingly – as the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome….;)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s