Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day

Today I am hosting a guest post for my friend Suzie.


Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Suzie’s first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling Lives Affected by Depression and Anxiety was published in 2012 and she also writes for a wide variety of national magazines. Suzie also runs a popular blog, ‘No wriggling out of writing’, and presents a local radio show on literature, called ‘Talking Books’.

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In 2012 I edited a book entitled Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives lived with depression and anxiety. It is an anthology of poetry, prose and photos produced by more than twenty people good enough to contribute to a monthly guest post slot on my blog No wriggling out of writing. They were prompted by my own story ‘Mental health, motherhood and finding the real me’ in which I revealed my own struggles with depression, anxiety and OCD. Vivienne herself was a key contributor to the book, the title itself coming from one of her moving pieces.

I found sharing my struggles became easier; especially as it became clear there were many out there who were experiencing similar issues. Through chats with wonderful people like Viv I realised there is much that still needs to be understood about the nature and impact of mental ill-health. As I had already documented a family history story on my blog – my discovery that my great uncle Alfred Hardiman had murdered an ex-girlfriend and then committed suicide whilst of ‘unsound mind’ and that he had been affected by his experience in the Great War, I became interested in the idea of ‘transgenerational trauma’, and how the impact of the First World War might have affected my family across and down the generations. I was shocked to learn that two of Alfred’s sisters had ended their lives in mental hospitals and at least three other close family members had significant mental health problems.

Furthermore, my family are not in any way unique. I delved deep into the newspaper archives and found many similar tragedies, and evidence that shell shocked soldiers and their families, as well as their communities and society as a whole had experienced a kind of collective grief and shock, the repercussions of which echo down the century. It is, I believe, why we are still so deeply affected by the conflict a century on.

I pitched the idea of a book on the subject to Pen and Sword Books and was lucky enough to be commissioned to write Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health.

I was to look at the impact of the Great War not only on the troops, but on their families and the nation as a whole. Whilst doing so I was also going to examine its impact on the treatments available post-war and on attitudes to mental illness in the ‘20s and ‘30s. As I uncovered more and still more stories of tragic events continuing until the outbreak of the Second World War I saw how many of them seemed eerily similar to stories we continue to hear now. I quickly realised we have not made a tenth of the progress we ought to have made in a world where conflict is global and peace-keeping a fallacy.

Service personnel still break down. Suicide, domestic violence, alcoholism, relationship breakdown, violent crime – rates are all higher amongst ex-service personnel than in the general population. These were issues that had been faced by those shell shocked men returning after the First World War, to a world that had no language to express the horrors they had witnessed. Surely, I thought, it should be different in the 21st century?

I have been told many times over the past two years of writing Shell Shocked Britain that ‘it was a different world back then…’ In many ways it was but we are currently going through a period of immense social change, much as they did 100 years ago. Globalisation and the information revolution as well as the speed of technological change leaves many exhausted and drained and even those who felt immune from mental illness can find themselves swept away by the intensity of it all.

We are, after all, still human. Those alive 100 years ago are our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. They loved and grieved for those lost and felt fear, anxiety, horror and revulsion at the atrocities that were being perpetrated. They may not have had the vocabulary we have now, or the acceptance of psychotherapy and the opportunity it offers to express the pain and deal with it positively, and were restricted by the social mores of the time, but they still searched for meaning in the horror.

One of the most interesting questions that I could not answer for certain related to those who appeared unscathed or saw the war as the making of them. Were they simply repressing the horrors described by so many others? And if so, did it matter?

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp wrote ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour, suggesting that it is those unaffected who are responding in the ‘abnormal’ fashion. Those who can see the horror and remain sanguine are perhaps closer to insanity.

As service personnel continue to break down and find it hard to admit they need help for fear of it suggesting weakness, it is clear that those complex issues have not been addressed. One of the most telling phrases I read as I researched Shell Shocked Britain comes from a leaflet published by the charity Combat Stress:

‘The man who lost his life in Iraq now lives in Birmingham…’

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Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health to be published by Pen & Sword History October 2014. See or follow @ShellShockedGB on twitter for more details.


Different books for a friday reading session ~ #Fridayreads

Friday Reads Feb 2014

Ages back I said I would report back on books I’ve read by indie writers that I have enjoyed and I didn’t. Not because I didn’t find any I liked but because there are so many!

I thought I’d slip in a few today of my more recent ones. They’re all very different.

For what I’d call soft sci-fi, why not try Kay Sluterbeck’s Educating the Human?     It’s the story of interspecies communication and is funny and touching. Light enough for a comfortable read, it does bring up some less than comfortable thoughts but is an entertaining shortish read.

For something with a bit more bite (haha) try Gev Sweeney’s Salutaris.  A very original and different take on the rather tired (unless you’re Anne Rice, that is) vampire trope, it delves quite deep into the human psyche and into matters of the spirit.

For a quick, spooky read, try Suzie Grogan’s trio of ghostly tales, The Marrow Scoop and other  The first two are close enough to the style of M.R. James for afficionados to enjoy, while the third is in the author’s own voice.

For anyone with a desire to go on a dark journey, Sam Pennington’s A Very Ordinary Madness  will draw you in but heed the trigger warning if you have a sensitive nature; it contains some harrowing scenes of self harm and scenes from a mental ward. The voice Sam uses is so authentic and powerful, reading it you are rooting for the charismatic main character to make it through wrestling with his demons.

There are more but I think that will be enough for the moment. It’s a very personal selection of books that have appealed to me recently. Have a great weekend!

PS: all books are available on Go into the URL for each book , find the and replace it with .com (or .de or .ca or whatever) and then hit enter. It will bring you to the right page for the book in your country. If not, then enter the author name and book title into the search bar on Amazon and find it that way.

World Mental Health Day ~ and Happy Birthday Dandelions

Today is World Mental Health Day.

It’s also the first anniversary of the publication of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, the book of essays, poems, pictures and musings written by a whole range of people, about their experiences of mental health distress, either as carer or as someone who suffers with one or other form of distress.

It was put together by Suzie Grogan and I contributed several pieces, including the essay that gave the book its title. It’s been extremely well received by many people, especially mental health professionals, and the stories are inspiring and thought provoking. Monies raised from sales of the book go to SANE and OCD Action and the awareness the book has raised so far has been impressive.

For the anniversary, the Kindle edition is priced at £1.53, and I would urge you to consider sharing this post on social media, buying the book either as Kindle or as paperback,  or if you have already got a copy, please think about writing a short review. The book was published initially by a small publisher without much budget for advertising and word of mouth is by far the best way a book like this can reach people.  The higher up the Amazon bestsellers lists for its categories it goes, the more visible it is to people browsing the virtual shelves for books that might help them. At the time of writing, it was at 14 in the charts for Kindle books on depression, at 29 in personal transformation and at 33 in mental health. The higher it goes and the longer it stays, the more of an impact it will make.

I was very proud to be a part of this project and still am. I’d like to see it at number one for books on depression.  In the blurb it says it might just save lives, and I believe this is true.

Let’s make this book shout out to the world that there is hope in the stories we have to share.