War does not trigger symptoms of PTSD in military personnel
A large-scale survey of the mental condition of military personnel before, during and after their posting to Afghanistan has proved thought-provoking. In total, 746 Danish soldiers took part in the survey. The soldiers completed a questionnaire five times in all – before their posting, during their time in Afghanistan and three times after their return to Denmark.
Professor Dorthe Berntsen of the Center on Autobiographical Memory Research – CON AMORE, Department of Psychology, Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, is responsible for the study, together with military psychologists at the Danish Centre for Defence Veterans and researchers from Duke University in North Carolina. The survey has produced some surprising results.
- Typically, it is not the experience of war that triggers the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), explains Dorthe Berntsen.
- In the case of soldiers in Afghanistan, we might well expect that it was their experiences of war there that triggered PSTD. However, the situation is not so simple. We need to look at the soldiers’ experiences in a lifetime perspective. The study has provided new information, because the survey includes data on the soldiers’ state of health before their departure, during their tour of duty and several times after their return. It shows that many of the soldiers had already experienced trauma before they went to Afghanistan, and that this has affected the way they reacted during their posting.
- It has long been generally thought that PTSD occurs after violent experiences. Our survey thus provides new knowledge, says Dorthe Berntsen.
- War in itself is not the crucial factor in making soldiers ill. It can be a contributing factor, but it is not the decisive factor.
Research can help
Dorthe Berntsen explains that PTSD sufferers experience among other symptoms involuntary intrusive recollections. These are very negative memories that force themselves into the consciousness, and they can be very disabling for the individual concerned. They may, for example, take the form of unpleasant flash-backs from the war that can cause mood changes, and can lead some individuals to lose confidence in themselves to a greater or lesser degree and to begin to dwell too much on their situation.
- Our research into involuntary recall shows that this type of recollection and the way it normally occurs can help us to understand the dysfunctional involuntary recollections that occur in disorders like PTSD.
Research conducted at the basic research centre CON AMORE, where Dorthe Berntsen is the director, shows that people have many pleasant involuntary recall experiences every day; the knowledge that the researchers have concerning ordinary involuntary recall can be used in understanding the dysfunctional, intrusive recollections that some soldiers experience when they return from war.
Differences among soldiers
The experiences of war do not cause negative effects in all soldiers. The majority of military personnel are resistant, and do not experience their combat-zone posting as a great problem. Soldiers can be grouped into three categories.
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