Provocative new research suggests that among military personnel, war is not necessarily the sole cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the study, investigators discovered that a majority of soldiers exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome were suffering from poor mental health before being assigned to a war zone.
Pychologist Dr. Dorthe Berntsen and colleagues assessed the mental status of 746 Danish soldiers assigned to NATO forces in Afghanistan. The testing occurred before, during and three times after the soldiers return to Denmark.The survey has produced some surprising results.
Researchers determined that development of PTSD was dependent upon an individual’s prior life experiences as many soldiers had already experienced trauma before they went to Afghanistan.
This finding is contrary to the existing belief that PTSD occurs after violent experiences, said Berntsen. Bernstsen believes 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.
She said 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.
Researchers say study findings show that people have many pleasant involuntary recall experiences every day. They say that the knowledge gained concerning ordinary involuntary recall is useful in understanding the dysfunctional, intrusive recollections that some soldiers experience when they return from war.
Researchers discovered that the experiences of war do not cause negative effects in all soldiers. In fact, 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: A small proportion of the soldiers in the survey felt better as a result of their posting. They had a high level of PSTD before their tour of duty, and this level decreased during or immediately after their posting to Afghanistan, after which it rose again.
This group of soldiers were less well educated than the others, with many of them having only attended lower secondary school, said Berntsen.
According to Berntsen, by far the largest proportion of soldiers in the survey fell into the category termed robust. They are a resistant group, and do not allow themselves to be affected by their everyday situation either before their posting, during their tour in Afghanistan or after returning home.
Around five percent of the soldiers in the survey proved to be different to those in the two groups above, and not in a positive sense. They were like the robust soldiers before going to the war zone, but their mental state deteriorated while they were there, and did not recover after their return home, said Berntsen.
The results of the study have been accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Science.
Source: Aarhus University