Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in War Veterans

These days, we know quite a lot about post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans and members of the military returning from conflict.

However this wasn’t always the case.

post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans

In addition to my training and experience as a psychologist, I have lived up close and personal with post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans – in particular, my own father.

Like all Dutch men in Indonesia before World War 2, my father was a reservist in the Dutch army.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1942, my father was called up to fight the Japanese army and defend Sumatra. After many months his group was eventually captured and he became a prisoner of war.

My father worked on the Burma railway in Thailand, where he and the other  prisoners of war were given barely enough rations to stay alive; upon his release, my father weighed just 37kg.

However starvation was just the beginning of the horrors they experienced; he and the other men were exposed daily to threats and torture. It was much like what you will see in the movie “The Railway Man” (starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) – beheadings, beatings, water-boarding, confinement in small spaces, sexual and physical abuse.

When the men were finally released, the memories remained with them, as vivid as if they were still in the camps.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

They were experiencing high level PTSD from wartime trauma.

According to the Australian Psychological Society, the “aetiology of PTSD is relatively specific, namely, any traumatic event that is perceived as life-threatening can result in the development of PTSD. However, as not all individuals who experience a potentially traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD, several aetiological models have been proposed to account for the post-trauma reaction some individuals experience” (EQUIP Practice Guides, APS).

The highest rates of PTSD can be found with victims of rape or sexual molestation, soldiers returning from war, victims of terrorist acts, and less so with motor vehicle accidents and natural disasters.

Brewin, Andrews and Valentine (2000) argue that the most significant risk factors for PTSD are:

  • greater trauma severity;
  • lack of social support; and
  • subsequent life stress.

Although the men in the Japanese prison camps had a social network of sorts, my father indicated there was no guarantee that the men would still be around in a month or so – many were moved to other places, or they died.

According to a report on the Thai-Burma and Hellfire Pass experience, around 200,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were involved in building the 415-kilometre railway between October 1942 and October 1943, to supply the Japanese forces in Burma.

Research suggests that with effective treatment, post traumatic stress disorder is less likely to follow a chronic course, with around one-third of patients expected to make a good recovery, one-third expected to do moderately well, and one-third unlikely to benefit (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013).

This means however, that even if treatment was provided to all of the war veterans – unlikely at that time in history – about one third of them did not gain any therapeutic benefit. There were therefore at least 20,000 Allied men (based on the numbers mentioned above) who retained high and untreated levels of post traumatic stress disorder throughout their lives.

trapped in the pastWar Veterans and Civilian Life

The Thai-Burma and Hellfire Pass report also stated that “The ex-POWs’ integration into Australian society was an ongoing process. The military offered training programmes, while friends and families helped them adjust to civilian life. Many former prisoners had no wish to dwell on their experiences, desiring only to ‘get on’ with their interrupted lives. Most were able to do this to varying degrees. However, some found post-war life difficult, especially after the initial joy of homecoming had worn off. One of the men, William Webb remembered:

Our discharge centres have vomited us out, by the hundreds, and after the almost sacred family reunions, we view with some misgiving, a rather strange world, that somehow does not seem to be going to be quite that Utopia, as viewed from dark hopelessness of a prison camp.”

The Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (2013) stated that “of those who do experience PTSD symptoms and do not receive treatment, 40 to 56% continue to have PTSD symptoms decades after the traumatic event.”

My father is a classic example. For years after the war, he would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, saying he could see all the nightmare scenarios over and over in his dreams.

He had told us he hated Japan and told us never to buy anything Japanese.

In the mid 1960’s he became a Christian and his outlook on life began changing. He realised the importance of forgiveness, and started to forgive the Japanese.

Towards the end of his years he even bought a Japanese car, a Mazda!

The Role of Forgiveness

Many folk think that forgiveness is a case of “I forgive you but will never forget what you did to me”.

However I believe that this approach means that the individual with PTSD continues to carry the pain and suffering, even years afterwards.

They are imprisoned by their continuous experience and memories of the past. In effect this form of forgiveness is saying: “I hold you in prison forever because of what you have done to me. I will try to get over it but I will never forget – even if you change.” The problem is that just as a jailer is required to remain outside a prison to make sure the prisoner remains in jail, in effect they will always remain tied to each other, so neither is free.

True forgiveness on the other hand brings freedom. Those involved may still have scars after the experience, but they will also have the greatest opportunities for healing. Now they really experience the present moment afresh.

As the experiences of my father demonstrate, forgiveness can help in recovery from PTSD, releasing anger and bitterness, and thereby allowing the individual to achieve a greater sense of peace and wellbeing.

To find out more about recovery and healing from post traumatic stress disorder, even if you are not a war veteran, please make an appointment with me.

Dr Peter NoordinkAuthor: Dr Peter Noordink, BA, Grad Dip App Sc, PhD, MAPS.

Dr Peter Noordink is a Brisbane Psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in areas such as pain management, aged care, suicide prevention, improving self-worth, teenage issues, and helping middle aged men and women deal with the problems of midlife. He uses a very gentle approach to explore issues which are currently impacting on one’s general and psychological wellbeing.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Dr Peter Noordink, you can try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.

References:

  • Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. (2013). Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Melbourne, Victoria: ACPMH.
  • Brewin, C. R., Andrews, B., & Valentine, J. D. (2000). Meta-analysis of risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed adults. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 68 (5), 748.
  • Creamer, M., Burgess, P., & McFarlane, A. C. (2001). Post-traumatic stress disorder: Findings from the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being. Psychological Medicine, 31(7), 1237-1247.
  • Macaskill, A. (2012). Differentiating dispositional self-forgiveness from other-forgiveness: Associations with mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31 (1), 28-50.
  • O’Toole, B. I., Marshall, R. P., Grayson, D. A., Schureck, R. J., Dobson, M., French, M., Vennard, J. (1996). The Australian Vietnam veterans’ health study: III. Psychological health of Australian Vietnam veterans and its relationship to combat. International Journal of Epidemiology, 25(2), 331-339.
  • Strelan, P. & Covic, T.(2006). A review of forgiveness process models and a coping framework to guide future research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25 (10), 1059.

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