War neurosis: Soldiers and families alike face mental health struggles – study

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World War veterans and their families were often left emotionally, physically, mentally and financially in a bad way when they returned from overseas, a study has found.

Anzac Day commemorations at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. (2018) Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The Otago University study published in Health and History analysed welfare claims from Dunedin’s Returned Services’ Association for Second World War veterans suffering from war neurosis and how they were supported in terms of mental health care when returning from war.

Angela Wanhalla, who was a lead author of the study alongside Tiffany Jenks, said until now very little was known about the mental health support given to soldiers on their return home.

“We know about the physical disabilities but there is a lot of silence around the kinds of trauma that was attached to war service and how families actually ended up being the core support for many of these men who sometimes struggled to articulate what was wrong.”

She said some had been learned from the First World War about the effects on soldiers, particularly around shell-shock which is the term most commonly associated with the trauma of war service during the First World War.

“In World War Two a lot more people went overseas so we had a much larger cohort to help on their return home so there were some services available but what the government did was expand on those through rehabilitation legislation, which they built on what happened in World War One.

“A lot of that support was in trade training and reintegration on return, health care and war pensions but I think they did underestimate the need that was required for many men who returned from the war suffering from what was called war neurosis at the time.”

Wanhalla said it was a catch-all term for a range of behaviours, some of which might be called depression or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) today. People suffered from nightmares, had high anxiety, struggled to concentrate and maintain their job too.

“Often some of them were in and out of hospital needing care on a regular basis, others may have turned to alcohol in order to cope with the trauma.”

She said some of the veterans were reluctant to come forward and seek help.

“There was a lot of stigma about mental illness during the mid-20th century and a stigma that after decades was only just starting to change, so there was a lot of silence and people who struggled to come forward and share their stories.”

She said many veterans did not start asking for help until the ’60s and ’70s.

The study found the criteria for access to war pensions was very tight.

Wanhalla said a physical disability as a result of war was something much easier to get a war pension for, based on the criteria, than mental illness which was far more invisible.

The study found there was a general belief that a mental disability was easier to fake than a physical one, so those who applied for a war pension based on neurosis were viewed with suspicion.

Wanhalla said the trauma of war was not carried only by the veterans, the burden was shared by their families.

“War trauma is not something that sits with one generation or one individual. It’s something the whole family shares in.”

Wanhalla said they were very interested in the way families provided care and support and sometimes the strain, both financial and emotional.

“While the files don’t fully illuminate the extent of these struggles, they do show how the RSA strove to support both veterans and their wider family.

“The RSA’s ability to operate at a more intimate level with returned servicemen and their families meant they were able to provide support in multiple ways through its welfare claim system that encompassed a sense of care and compassion for veterans and their families that was financial, medical, physical, as well as emotional.”