The number of UK veterans suffering the debilitating effects of war trauma is set to increase, according to a University of Nottingham academic.
Research by Dr Nigel Hunt, Associate Professor in the Institute of Work, Health and Organisations, shows that, with no end in sight for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more veterans will return home suffering the effects of war trauma. The condition covers a variety of problems relating to stress and emotion, and memory, social, work and family difficulties.
But by looking at the varying ways that different countries cope with their afflicted veterans, Dr Hunt hopes to identify the most effective ways of treating the condition. He has already visited Finland to examine the country's well-established infrastructure for supporting veterans. And after speaking at Tehran's First Annual Congress of Social Security and Justice in May, Dr Hunt hopes to further explore support networks in Iran.
War trauma is a psychological condition caused by experiencing a traumatic event during conflict. The memory of the event triggers strong emotions, causing any number of reactions — from depression and self-harm to anger, violence and drug addiction. Often, the symptoms will be so extreme that the veteran will be unable to live a normal life. Work prospects, family life and other relationships may be affected, exacerbating the symptoms and leading to an ever-increasing sense of isolation and worthlessness.
War trauma is a notoriously difficult disorder to assess and measure. The traumatic memories can be triggered by seemingly unrelated events, and in many case the symptoms do not appear for some time after the event — a veteran can return home healthy with years passing before the condition develops.
And this is where the problems with treatment arise, according to Dr Hunt. “If you start showing symptoms of war trauma during service you are the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and you have access to a strong network of support and treatment,” he said. “But many people do not develop the condition until they have left the services, once they have lost the supportive network, spending time day to day with people who understand what they have been through and how they feel. Once out of the services, they are the responsibility of the NHS, where many practitioners don't have the experience and specialist knowledge to deal with people suffering from war trauma. And once they have been diagnosed, they can spend up to two years on a waiting list waiting to be treated.”
During treatment, patients work with a psychologist to address their traumatic memory, revisiting and examining it again and again until the emotional response connected to it is 'disabled'. If successful, the memory will always be unpleasant to recall, but will no longer trigger the extreme symptoms.
Dr Hunt's research has also examined the universal and the cultural effects of war trauma.
The universal elements of the condition include the traumatic event, and the memory of that event, which triggers an emotional response. Also universal are the two basic elements of coping with the condition — either addressing it or choosing to ignore it.
The cultural elements of war trauma cover the acknowledgement, treatment and support networks for the condition, as well as the way it manifests itself. This can vary broadly depending on the nationality, social background and religion of those suffering from the symptoms.
For example, in Finland veterans are the focus of a great deal of respect from their government and population. They are also offered annual 'respite care' sessions at specially-built camps across the country. Here they can spend two weeks a year with other veterans, in a relaxing environment, with access to expert advice and help. As a result, Finland sees a very limited incidence of war trauma among its veterans.
But for veterans coming home to the UK find no such support network in place. Often, the only place for them to turn is oversubscribed charities such as Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion.
“In Iran, there's a very strong religious support network in place,” said Dr Hunt. “The existence of war trauma is recognised, particularly in relation to the Iran-Iraq War, and people are supported by their religious belief and their relationship to their imam and mosque. Their reasons for going to war were just, because they were fighting for God, and their memories and injuries are justified by their devotion.”
“Here in the UK we don't have such a strong belief system. Those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to ask what they are fighting for. When they see horrific incidents, they might struggle to justify it in the context of the wider conflict. Unlike Iranian soldiers, they know they don't have the full support of the people back home. And when they do return home, a system isn't in place to deal with the resulting psychological problems. All of these factors will mean that war trauma amongst UK veterans will increase over the coming months and years unless significant extra funding and effort is dedicated to supporting them.”
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