For those young men who were lucky enough to return from the trenches following the First World War, they faced, on mass, the trauma of having endured some of the worst fighting in human history. Veterans suffered from nightmares, anxiety, guilt and despair.
At the time ‘mental illness’ was seen as deeply stigmatising. Talking therapies were promoted for the new form of suffering that became known as ‘shell shock’. In turn the post war reorganisation of mental health services for veterans, changed the way mental health services were offered to the whole population, a reorganisation that can still be felt to this day.
For most veterans though, they were left to reintegrate with mainstream society as best they could, without any formal support or help. The result was a collective trauma on society that was acted out for generations to come. My own grandfather fought in the trenches. He also lost a son in the Second World War. I am without doubt that this family trauma of warfare affected my parents, and, in turn, me. Such ‘generational trauma’ is the price paid by the whole of society by decisions to go to war.
Men’s mental health, of course, has never really been seen as very important. The mental health of our soldiers even less so. Society still expects soldiers to put themselves in harms way, kill or be killed, and endure the indignities of combat, and return and reintegrate without our help or support.
A recent survey indicates that up to 20 000 veterans of the Iraq, Afghanistan and other recent conflicts, are currently serving sentences within the criminal justice system. Of those, 8500 are serving custodial sentences. That’s 1 in 10 of the prison population. Why are ex servicemen so highly represented in the criminal justice system?
The main reason is what was formally known as ‘shell shock’ and, given the inability of government to resource services, the ways veterans are forced to cope with it. In one survey of veterans in the criminal justice system, the majority of veterans serving sentences had turned to drink and drugs to cope with their symptoms. About half of them were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or depression as a result of their service. Most were convicted of violent behaviour especially domestic violence. In acting out their own trauma, society is also traumatised, and just like the First and Second World Wars, will continue to be passed through the generations to come.
As a therapist who has worked with men caught up in war zones, I can vouch that listening to the tales these men tell, hearing the horrors they have endured, can be truly horrific. That the work is hard is no excuse, however, it should still be done. If we as a society are content to send our young men to war, we owe it to them and their families to look after their emotional welfare when they return. Prison is no place to send our heroes.
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