World War One’s Forgotten Female Shell-Shock Victims

by Rachel Baker on September 8, 2014

This is an interesting article; and like most articles of this nature, the comments, right or wrong, are just as interesting.

I don’t really know a lot about the history of WWI. I do, however, understand a bit about PTSD and the trauma of just being in the military for both women and men; further, I understand there is probably a great amount of trauma involved in being a loved one back home of someone deployed. To say one group of people suffered more than another is incredibly short-sighted and shows a lack of understanding about the human condition and how people process horribly stressful events. It would be more accurate to say that EVERYONE suffered and to start with that premise, because frankly being in the trenches isn’t the only time someone can suffer from PTSD.

I think its fair to say that in times of war, there has always been an incomplete understanding of the mental health of all involved in warfare – from the ambulance drivers to the soldiers in the trenches to the people in the factories who may or may not have suffered survivors guilt or the constant fear of losing their loved one in a country far away from home.

I would like to see an article like this one written in a bit of a more all-inclusive way with regards to gender, because it wasn’t just women who suffered from the lack of mental health studies – the men did to; because we didn’t understand the brain very well at all. With our ability to now look back, its easy to see that there was a serious lack of mental health studies of the right kind with either gender. Because of the “fragile gender” view of women in the past it does seem as though maybe women were left out to dry on ‘effect of war’ studies, but we didn’t get it right for the men either. And its really really important to note that fact. Anything short of doing so, decreases crediblity – and as a woman who was in the military, it’d be good if articles of this nature couldn’t be discredited for minor inconsistencies and thoughtlessness.

World War One’s Forgotten Female Shell-Shock Victims.

In late 1917, a British woman named Elizabeth Huntley decapitated her own daughter. When the case went to trial, her friends and family testified that she had been a “jolly-hearted woman”—that is, “until the air raids.” Her sister told the judge that the raids in London caused Elizabeth to shake and have delusions, and that she had become depressed. Her doctor had tried to get her out of London and away from her children, because during the raids they “screamed” and “worried her,” but he was too late. She had a nervous breakdown during a raid, and murdered her child. They called it “air raid shock.”

During World War I, the relatively new field of psychoanalysis was full of possibility and, unfortunately, thousands of new patients. The war’s destruction was not limited to the physical; the psychological devastation was immense, and soldiers returned home from the front every day exhibiting a range of new symptoms, including “hysterical paralysis,” deafness, mutism, arthritis, facial spasms, “fear, disgust, fatigue,” “delirium,” “suicidal thoughts,” “stammer,” and more. Though we now recognize many of these as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, doctors at the time struggled to find ways to categorize the rapid and widespread breakdown of the British mind. The solution for soldiers was the invention of a new condition: shell shock. The diagnosis and treatment of similar traumas in women, however, has been largely unexamined by historians.

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