Our Heroes Aren’t Cowards: The Evolution of Shell Shock to PTSD

This is a comparison of two brain scans, one individual with PTSD (left) and the other without (right). | Courtesy of MedicalXpress.

Winner of the Fall 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Military History”

Best Article in the Category of “Science & Technology”

Charles Meyers, a Medical Officer, introduced the term “Shell Shock” to explain symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) displayed by military after combat in World War I (WWI). Soldiers often experienced symptoms including fatigue, tremor, confusion, nightmares, impaired sight, and impaired hearing. Meyers assumed that these symptoms were caused by the soldiers’ exposure to exploding shells, not necessarily the trauma they were witnessing or going through. In these years, symptoms of widespread PTSD were considered “weak” traits for soldiers by their colleagues and bosses. Even society as a whole started to view these symptoms negatively, which led to the destruction of their relationships after the Shell Shocked soldiers arrived home.1

Military gave Shell Shock victims no sympathy. When soldiers were dismissed from their duties, they were given labels such as “cowardice” or “emotionally weak.” These labels led to soldiers being targeted for abuse from their own side, as well as mock trials in which they were convicted. The pardons they received weren’t honorable, so they were often ashamed of their disorder, which led to more mental issues among the soldiers like depression, anxiety, and even suicide.2

Arthur Hurst was an army major who developed treatments for shell shock that were very successful. | Courtesy of BBC

New treatments flipped understandings of how World War I caused drastic changes in the behaviors of these men. Treatment for Shell Shocked victims before Arthur Hurst’s “miracle treatments” were very harsh, as they were often treated with Electroconvulsive Therapy, emotional deprivation, shaming, and solitary confinement. Some of the lesser treatments were hypnosis, massage, rest, and dietary treatments.3

Arthur Hurst primarily used occupational therapy to treat Shell Shocked patients, treating them as humanely and sympathetically as possible. This dignified care allowed for the increased numbers of “saved” soldiers, as they found ways to overcome the abuse and the labels given to them after their dishonorable discharges. Hurst’s treatments became iconic after the Newton Abbott’s Seale Hayne in Devon. Hurst’s approach allowed for 90% of Shell Shocked soldiers to be cured after only a single session.4

An example of PTSD being treated by Electroshock Therapy. | Courtesy of The Science Explorer.

Modern day treatments, consist of therapy, as well as new medicines that aid in the control of the symptoms. According to Michael James, a pharmacist, there are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) that block the re-uptake of serotonin in the brain and help with sleep disorders, nightmares, and decreases intrusive thoughts. James also informed me that Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) block the re-uptake of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain which also decrease intrusive thoughts and provide aid for sleep disorders and nightmares.5

Hurst’s approach led to a change of heart and a consensus to the overall approach by society as a whole. Now, Veterans Affairs, also known as the VA, has a large program that provides aid to veterans with PTSD. However, this evolution of PTSD has not only been beneficial to veterans, but it has also allowed for a more diverse diagnosis of PTSD, in which it is more understood that other people, in addition to veterans, can also experience PTSD. PTSD can be caused from any sort of trauma including car accidents, violent crimes, and domestic violence. Individuals can even develop PTSD from having someone important abandon them as well. The DSM-5 has set a variety of symptoms for PTSD because just like any other disorder, it affects every individual differently. This document allows all individuals to gain access to the tools and help they need to recover from or live with PTSD.6

At Sir William Hospital in England, nurses used experimental medical treatments on soldiers with Shell Shock. | Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine.

 

  1. Caroline Alexander, “The Shock of War,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2010, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-shock-of-war-55376701/.
  2. “Shell Shock,” BBC Inside Out, March 3, 2004, http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/extra/series-1/shell_shocked.shtml.
  3. “Electroconvulsive Therapy: A History of Controversy, but Also of Help,” The Science Explorer, January 13, 2017, http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/electroconvulsive-therapy-history-controversy-also-help; “Arthur Hurst: The Man Who Filmed Shell Shock,” BBC Radio 4, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4VqPtrjsgcPKtgmYc2M5vXz/arthur-hurst-the-man-who-filmed-shell-shock.
  4. “Arthur Hurst: The Man Who Filmed Shell Shock,” BBC Radio 4, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4VqPtrjsgcPKtgmYc2M5vXz/arthur-hurst-the-man-who-filmed-shell-shock.
  5. Email with Michael James, September 11, 2018.
  6. Pete Walker, From Surviving to Thriving (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), 13-14.
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104 Comments

  • Before reading this article I did not know about the military dishonoring those who had PTSD because of Shell Shock. Those who have sacrificed their mental health and relationships for their country should not have been dishonored or considered weak. The article is well written and informed the reader about the past struggles soldiers would have to face when they came home. (reposted)

  • PTSD is a sad reality of most of our war veterans and has proven to be caused by traumatic and stressful events while on duty. PTSD should be considered much more seriously that it has been previously. Congratulations on your nomination I appreciate your article for talking about and explaining The effects PTSD has on the individual. I learned a lot from this article about PTSD and the different stigmas around it.

  • Very informative article!! Great job!! It is hard to come across an article that is interesting and informative at the same time. Overall, this article is well written and very informative. I never knew what shell shock and PTSD can do to the human brain. This article deserved a nomination. The pictures used were very impactful! They seem like they are from a horror movie. It is very scary to have to go through these experiences. I hope I never do.

  • A brief but informative article. I never realized that I never knew who was responsible for changing the diagnosis of shell shock to PTSD. In hindsight I always viewed the matter as overtime our perceptions of the disease and its victims just changed, but I never stopped to think that a catalyst for this change was due to the actions of someone like Arthur Hurst. Overall this is a well written and informative article.

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