Shell Shocked: World War I And Mental Health

Mental healthcare teams are still Cinderella services. And most people with mental health difficulties are suffering in silence, their disabilities largely invisible. Some of this is changing though. People are starting to speak out. Take the My Mind and Me campaign for example – a real commitment by Radio 1, providing a platform throughout 2017 for its listeners to discuss their mental health. And really well thought through. If you want to make an enduring dent in stigma, where better to start than with that station’s target audience – 15 to 29 year olds. And who better to feature talking candidly about the stresses this age group is living with, than the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga?

Which, this Armistice weekend, set me thinking of what 15-29 year olds were facing a hundred years ago. Of course, the War poetry of Wilfred Owen and others help bring across the full horror of the trenches. But what of the impact on the many who were less able to find a voice?

These young men, terribly traumatised by war, confronted the country with the then new phenomenon of shell shock, so striking that it couldn’t be ignored.

We tend to use the term ‘shell shocked’ so freely today that we could be speaking of almost any experience of stunned upset. So seeing the real thing, in remarkable film footage held in the Welcome Collection’s Library, is sobering.

The Welcome Collection has posted five short videos of silent films made 100 years ago, at the Netley Hospital, Hampshire in 1917. Do have a look.

Treatment for shell shock at Netley included hypnosis and rehabilitation (or what we may today call occupational therapy). Interestingly, this time of national crisis was also a time of scientific creativity, and the work was publicised in the Lancet.

From the written captions in the films, and from the description in the Welcome Library, we learn of the men treated by a Dr Hurst and a Dr Symons – their rank, their symptoms and their war traumas.

Looking in 100 years on

The films are deeply affecting. The silent black and white footage flickers to show ghostly figures with little facial expression. We learn that at least some of the men had been as mute as the film itself. But it’s their bodies that talk. They shake, grimace, as they demonstrate their gaits to the camera. Macabre – ‘dancing’, ‘shuffling’, walking as if on ice.

And the viewer is left shocked at the descriptions of their experiences: ‘gassed’, ‘buried’ from a shell.

Watching these films, I kept thinking how young those men were, and what terrible things had happened. And how it seemed from the films that their lives began and ended with the trauma – as if something had been frozen. What had they been like before going to war? What experiences had they gone through before? The war had overshadowed everything, defined everything. But then again, in a way it did just that for the whole of Europe.

The treatment was clearly effective – some of the recoveries shown in the films are impressive. But what was left? How did these men carry the memory of their wartime experience with them afterwards?

Advances in psychological treatment at the time meant that it became possible for people to tell their stories, in more ways than just through their bodies. And today the suffering of people returning from war may look different – and be treated differently (although I’m told that plenty of refugees who had lived through awful things still come to mental health services with paralysis and other physical symptoms). Today, we can talk about ourselves, we can listen to people’s experiences. When it comes to war, we’ve seen the effects of these experiences, we know about the experiences themselves. And we owe it to 1917’s young generation to remember.

The silent films

The Welcome Institute has made the films freely available on YouTube: