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'Cures' for psychiatric illness

A soldier diagnosed with 'shell shock', 1916.

A soldier diagnosed with 'shell shock', 1916.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Care for the mental health of the soldier was particularly important when large numbers were required to ensure the war machine ran smoothly. In the same way that men had bodily injuries, war could be damaging to minds. Psychiatric cases could be numerous.

In the First World War, 25% of discharges were psychiatric cases. In the Second World War, 8% of battle casualties were psychiatric and the numbers discharged were between 20 and 50%, but it was argued that numbers were increased by the inclusion of women. ‘Talking cures’ promoted by Sigmund Freud and adapted by W H Rivers at Craiglockhart for shell-shocked officers achieved a certain amount of success. In addition, punishment, rest, occupational therapy and hypnosis were all used by different practitioners to reduce symptoms.

In the Second World War medical officers put greater emphasis on exhaustion as a cause of psychological problems, instead of discussing them in terms of cowardice as had often been the case during the First World War. In later stages of the Second World War and in the Vietnam War treatment consisted of three principles: immediate treatment with early identification of a problem, recovery within close proximity to the battle, and constantly reassuring the patient that he or she is getting better.


Related links


B Shepard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century (London; Jonathan Cape, 2000)

J E Talbott, ‘Psychiatrists and Combat Trauma’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 27/3 (Winter 1997), pp 437-454