There’s a long and interesting article in today’s Independent, highlighting the remarkable finding that US soldiers are much more likely than British ones to suffer post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – by a massive 30% to 4%. The article’s American author, Ethan Watters, suggests that the difference is cultural. His analysis turns out to be more of a critique of US ways in ignorance of British ones – but the core idea, that mental illness can be driven by society’s attitudes is an interesting and disturbing one. Disturbing because it suggests that the modern fashion for exploring victimhood is making suffering worse than it needs to be.
Mr Watters says that the original diagnosis of PTSD was developed by anti-war professionals in the Vietnam era, and motivated by the wish to show the harmfulness of violence and war. Because people increasingly expected to suffer illness after experiencing trauma, like combat experience, they duly did. PTSD was pretty much unknown before Vietnam (and it’s not the same as shell-shock and other manifestations of mental illness resulting from combat experience noted in earlier wars). Of course there is not much evidence of PTSD in earlier wars because nobody was looking for it. Also, I might add, survival rates are much higher these days. Mr Watters then goes on to develop the idea that illness is exacerbated by the emptiness of modern culture, which deprives victims of moral support.
This is all very well as a narrative, and I think there is something in it. But I don’t think this explains why so many fewer British veterans suffer PTSD. Mr Watters suggests that the British are much more sceptical about PTSD , and have a stronger belief in natural resilience. That does not sound like the modern Britain that I know and love, where victim culture appears rampant and, I suspect, more politically accepted than in the US. And besides, we are much less religious than Americans, so surely the desolation of modern culture should be much more prevalent? The difference between the two countries is much more likely to be around the way their respective armies work. British veterans are more likely to suffer from alcohol abuse or depression, incidentally.
But the idea remains that a focus on victimhood and traumatization, which can verge on celebration sometimes, is very unhelpful. We should celebrate resilience. Most people have it within their own resources to recover from trauma, and many can be strengthened by it; we need to acknowledge this, rather than undermine the confidence of those do not, in fact, need outside support.