Mental Health Awareness Week: Psychological Wounds

May 13th, 2015

Mental Health Awareness Week is an initiative set up to help end the stigma surrounding mental health. Today’s blog is looking at servicemen’s experiences of “shell-shock” in the First World War.
Mental health was a taboo subject and largely seen as a “female” disease caused by weakness of the mind. This was particularly problematic as the traumatic experiences of servicemen in the trenches left many with what was known as shell shock, now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). By the time the war had ended 80,000 servicemen had been treated for “shell shock”, but modern estimates suggest that 325,000 people may have had PTSD.

There are a wide variety of symptoms that people who have PTSD can experience:

  • Flashbacks and nightmares
    Depression and suicidal thoughts
    Memory loss
    Uncontrollable twitching
    Avoiding talking about the trauma
    Alcohol and substance abuse
    There are a great many other symptoms and trauma can trigger other physical and psychological conditions.ptsd word cloud

There were a number of problems people who suffering from PTSD had to face in addition to experiencing extreme psychological distress. Firstly, many people still believed that the condition was not “real” and that the men were putting on an act to get out of serving at the Front.

Derbyshire Record Office has letters which document the story of one man who appears to have suffered from PTSD during the war. He tried to desert his post and was court marshaled for the offence.

I regret very much to inform you that your son was tried some time ago by a field general Court Martial and found guilty of desertion. He was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude which sentence was suspended and your son given a chance to make good. He again deserted and was again sentenced to a further term of penal servitude but again the sentence was suspended and your son was transferred to a labour company at one of the bases. We have since heard he has been admitted to the army Special Hospital but don’t know for what reason.

His sentences appear unusually lenient as many servicemen suffering from PTSD were charged with cowardice and desertion and sentenced to death by shooting.

The effects of PTSD can last a long time and be incredibly debilitating. Later letters in the archives discuss the soldier’s “nervous breakdown” once he had been transferred to Dykebar Hospital in Scotland.

he is always the same every time I go to the Hospital although he was speaking a little more tom me than he did any other Sunday, but it was just when I asked him anything he answered me. I asked him did he know what day it was. He said he didn’t know. I was telling him it was Sunday and did he remember when he used to play the church organ on Sunday but he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. He just gave a little smile.

Kingsway Hospital was previously called the Derby Asylum. It opened in 1888 and treated many military personnel during the First World War.
Kingsway Hospital was previously called the Derby Asylum. It opened in 1888 and treated many military personnel during the First World War.
This was compounded by the fact that access to mental health care could be difficult and varied widely. Some doctors used distraction methods, in which the patient is not allowed to talk about the trauma and instead has to focus on other activities, while others using talking therapies in which they were actively encouraged to talk about their trauma in order to help them deal with it. Furthermore, there was a huge amount of stigma surrounding mental illness, this increased distress and made finding support more difficult.

PTSD is still a major issue for many people, not just in the armed services. Whilst a great deal of research has been done on the condition and treatment has evolved there is still a lot of stigma surrounding PTSD and mental health in general.


PTSD Resolution is a mental health charity which provides therapy for members of the armed forces who are dealing with trauma.

derbyshire voice

Derbyshire Voice is a local mental health advocacy charity who campaign to mental health stigma and to improve mental health services in Derbyshire.