Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Psychology Is All In the Mind

April 28th, 2011 by G.

Why do 30% of American combat veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder compared to only 4% of British combat veterans?

One suggestion is that Americans have internalized the idea that killing and being nearly killed causes psychosis much more than the Brits have. In fact, the argument is stronger than the linked article suggests, because the work of SLA Marshall is probably hokum. Which means that modern American PTSD rates contrasts not only to modern British rates but to the apparently lower rates in past American wars.

In recent years psychologists observed the emergence of a new psychosis, the amputee fantasy, that had never been observed before. Mental illness, it turns out, can be cultural.

Psychology is in the mind.

Comments (8)
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April 28th, 2011 08:24:38

April 28, 2011

From things I’ve read, and veterans I’ve talked to, and people who knew WWII and Korean vets, the PTSD rate was not lower in the past among US veterans. It went by different names, and people just suffered with it instead of going to psychs and getting pills from their family docs. WWII and Korean vets had their share of basket cases (shell shock, battle fatigue, homlessness, which used to be called bums/hobos/etc).

In the past, people just kept it in the family and didn’t feel the need to go to shrinks. Plenty of veterans’ wives put up with the night-terrors, flash backs, and abuse from their husbands. Women today have less of a tendency to put up with abuse. In the past, husbands/fathers who yelled at and beat their family were seen differently.

I don’t know how to explain the apparent difference with the Brits. Are they under-reporting? Are they just better at “keeping a stiff upper lip”? Does their culture prepare young men better for the horrors of war?

Adam G.
April 28, 2011

something comparable to PTSD existed in the past (at least as far as the 20th C. wars go), but we’re talking about percentages. Proof that it existed is not proof of comparable percentages (not that I have proof on hand either).

Another explanation is that America rewards PTSD (with disability payments, e.g.) in a way that Britain doesn’t.

However, I incline to the theory that at least part of the answer is different cultural expectations. Look at the studies showing, for instance, that if people consistently recall a memory in a less frightening context the memory softens, but if they recall it in a high-pressure context, the memory itself becomes rougher for them.

Latter-day Guy
April 29, 2011

A friend of mine who works as a psychologist for veterans, suggests that the increase in PTSD (over past wars) is partly due to better body armor and medical assistance. That is, soldiers are surviving experiences that would have killed them in the past.

Admittedly, this does not address the disparity between US and British forces.

April 30, 2011

It may relate to different demographic expectations.

For instance, perhaps Americans are Pollyannish in their views on Iraq and are psychologically jarred by the Hobbesian reality, while our friends across the pond are more accustomed to a life that is nasty, British, and short.

April 30, 2011

I’ve done volunteer work with Vietnam veterans off and on for about 14 years. At least for Vietnam vets, the percentages are/were comparable to WWII and Korea, at least that is the general concensus among those with whom I’ve associated. It wasn’t until PTSD was studied with Vietnam vets that the psychs started to know what was going on, and then looking back, the correlations were made with WWII and Korean vets; “Ah, so that’s what your dad and grandad had.”

Part of the USA/Brit difference may be the makeup of the troops. In Vietnam, our’s was a conscript (non volunteer) army. Today’s full-time military forces, at least since Desert Storm, are volunteer, but the majority of those who served in actual combat (Desert Storm and later) were not full-time professional soldiers, but rather the weekend warriors called up to duty, guys who signed up mainly for the education benefits. Whereas Britain has relied on their corps of full-time professional soldiers. So our weekend-warrior boys weren’t really expecting or mentally prepared/trained as well as the full-time British soldiers.

I also wonder if a lack of defined goals, lack of definition of victory, lack of a clearly defined enemy plays a part. In Vietnam and later, have our soldiers really felt part of a cause like they did in WWII? Does it matter if you get traumatized delivering the pizza as opposed to actually saving the world from Nazi and Japanese tyranny?

This Libya thing, worthy of a separate post, really has me worried more than Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration is taking the side of the Islamists in this one. In Afghanistan and in Iraq, we were/are on the side of those seeking for democracy. In Egypt, it is/was murky, but we didn’t do anything more than talk about it. In Libya, we’re actually shooting, even if boots aren’t on the ground yet. But in Libya, whatever we do is benefiting the Muslim Brotherhood.

This Libya thing is as big a screw-up as Clinton’s (administration’s) actions that led to Iraq’s invation of Kuwait. (I forget the name of the US ambassador to Iraq, but she essentially gave Iraq the green-light to militarily retaliate against Kuwait for slant-drilling of oil across the Iraqi border.)

Adam G.
April 30, 2011

it would be interesting to compare rates between National Guard guys and regular army guys.

April 30, 2011

During the Second World War, the National Guard divisions in the South Pacific had horrible rates of both combat fatigue and friend-fire incidents compared with Marines or regular Army divisions.

However, there are confounders. Those NG divisions that had time for extensive training in-theater before being committed to combat did okay. The ones that did poorly had soldiers significantly older than in non-NG divisions, and their leadership was universally agreed to be much poorer. So it wasn’t necessarily the nature of the grunts themselves that had them breaking down mentally or shooting nervously at each other.

April 30, 2011

Oh, and a possibly useful article, though for WWII only:


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