War can seriously damage your mental health

20.03.2013 - Silvia Swinden

This post is also available in: French

War can seriously damage your mental health
(Image by Truth and Reconciliation. Museo de la Memoria. Santiago de Chile. Wikipedia Creative Commons. )

We are used to describing conflicts we cannot understand, or where we see that the protagonists are apparently unable to see the benefits of peace and cooperation, as “crazy”. But this term is brought about by a sense of hopelessness, an expression of our inability to fathom what’s in the minds of those bent on revenge or often futile violent and/or suicidal quests. We might as well call them Martians.

“Crazy” rarely makes the connection with a stark fact: that war makes people “crazy”.

The psychosocial effects of war and violence are not often referred to when we talk about the victims, the casualties, the cost in money and human suffering. A number of research publications in recent times remind us that we are dealing with the most insidious but the also the most far reaching effects of war. In fact, if we would like to know why conflicts go on for generations we must include their psychological consequences in the equation.

Drugs, alcohol abuse and crime in British Servicemen

According to a study recently published in the Lancet British soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly young men and those who saw active combat, are more likely to commit violent crimes than the general population. The study found that those in combat roles were more than 50 percent more likely than those in non-combat roles to commit assaults or threaten violence after returning.  Drugs and alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are well known to play a role in such incidents. Many servicemen had a history of violent offending before joining the military. Whilst this made them more likely to be enthusiastic about active combat, the traumas experienced would also serve to unleash and reinforce such traits.

The public perception of a war and soldiers coming back

Very few now doubt that the war in Iraq was illegal, unnecessary and did more harm that good. Ten years after nearly 2 million people went to the streets in the UK to protest against it the destruction of the infrastructure and sectarian conflict are still taking lives (more than 600.000 according to the Lancet and counting, other estimates less, but still MANY) and fuelling more radical groups with no end in sight. Bush’s words still echo, “mission accomplished”. Sadly from his (and others like him) point of view, he was right.

After the Vietnam War it became clear that the reintegration of ex-combatants into society was strongly influenced by the public perception of the war. WW2, good. Vietnam, bad. After WW2 the PTSD sufferers (at the time known as shell shock and soldier’s heart) received treatment in specially established therapeutic communities and were cared for with sympathy and gratefulness. The Vietnam veterans went back to a highly critical society, their increased rates of drugs, alcohol abuse and crime duly noticed in hundred of scientific papers. Some studies also looked into PTSD in the civilian population in war zones. Certainly there but much more difficult to quantify and predict its future effects.

How is society receiving those back from Iraq and Afghanistan? Many think of them as war criminals, by association with those who started those wars; the politicians who were truly responsible generally do not get PTSD, you have to be near the action for that. Scandals, mistreatment (torture?) of civilians and soldiers, depleted uranium and nasty drugs to keep soldiers awake, “friendly” fire deaths and inadequate health services to deal with the consequences of all this as well as attempts by the authorities to qualify nasty symptoms, perhaps brought about by cocktails of vaccines and drugs as “psychological”, all factors in the sense of not returning as heroes.

People who come back from war are now citizens and they influence how the country, the local authority and the school attended by your children are run. Their psychological traumas are now part of everybody’s culture and everybody’s future. For each “bad” case that ends up in prison after committing an act of violence there will be an unquantifiable number of “milder” cases that perhaps engage in hidden domestic violence, who join an extremist party or group or overuse the NHS with chronic alcohol induced ailments. Statistics show that “the majority” of ex-servicemen do not become criminals or present clinical mental health problems, but how many of this majority simply cope in other ways without seeking help in order not to be seen as weak is completely unknown.

Drones, children and the future of terrorism

A study commissioned by Reprieve and published by Channel 4 News in UK took Forensic Psychologist Dr Peter Schaapveld to Yemen where he interviewed children who had some direct or indirect experience of drones attacks. He found many suffering from PTSD with symptoms including “vomiting every day, and also when hearing aircraft, or drones, or anything related …nightmares … dreaming of dead people, planes and people running around scared, not wanting to go to school, being unable to form relationships or play with other children, and arguing with siblings.” Dr Schaapveld also stated that “we did hear young men say that ‘they are forcing us into the hands of al-Qaeda, what else are we supposed to do?” For an idea of the amount of drone activity in several countries please see the report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

PTSD and seemingly intractable conflict

Why is the Arab-Israeli conflict so difficult to overcome? Why so many conflicts go on for generation after generation? There are many factors, of course, the most obvious being that whilst the situation of injustice that generated the conflict in the first place does not get resolved the factions may well develop a lifestyle, a cultural identity that is linked to the conflict. But also, there is evidence that PTSD is passed from one generation to the next through sharing experiences within the family and from information the young get for themselves about what their ancestors went through. If we add to that fresh images of horrors (war, bombs, torture) we have the full house for psychological trauma handed down intergenerationally. Thoughts of ending the conflict, perhaps through a degree of compromise, become a sort of betrayal of one’s family. Certain sense of “responsibility” for avenging members of the family lost to the conflict block the mental pathway towards peace and reconciliation and condemns the children to the same fate.

Every time an Israeli sees a missile coming from Gaza, it’s the Holocaust all over again. Every time a Palestinian has to cross the infamous wall to go to work or access their own crops it’s the Nakba all over again, PTSD is about re-living the traumatic experiences, even if they happened before their lifetime. It is so irrational that it demands not only redress but also revenge, the main poison of the human soul. “Don’t get mad, get even” is the Hollywood promoted motto and core plot for most of its films. Interestingly enough, “mad” has become synonymous with “very, very angry” which is a complete misuse of the word “mad” as most people suffering from psychosis are not aggressive (but the few who are get paraded by the media with such gusto that the general public become convinced that they all are).

And we go back to the first point made, that war and violence can make people “crazy” enough to engage in indiscriminate aggression because the mind becomes locked in the trauma. Revenge throws away the key. Reconciliation opens the door and the future, for the individuals involved, their descendents and society at large.

Reconciliation can be achieved through meaningful deep meditation and other spiritual searches, therapeutic methods, discussions within a group of like-minded people, developing solidarity and empathy towards “the other” and positively directed social action. The Golden Rule “When you treat others as you would have them treat you, you liberate yourself” is the first step towards reconciliation and sanity in dealing with conflict.

In the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war let us take this message to others to prevent other wars, and to offer our help to those already traumatised by past ones.

 

 

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