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