The Psychology of Trauma

The Psychological Impact of Trauma

What role did war play in the development of trauma studies?

Although Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory turned the budding mental health field away from the psychological effects of trauma, returning soldiers from World War I brought attention right back to the effects of trauma. The war was tremendously traumatic. Young men were sent away from home and exposed to the constant threat of their own death and to the violent and bloody death of their comrades. They were also forced to perform violent and murderous acts themselves, sometimes against civilians.

Many soldiers returning from WWI exhibited the emotional distress we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time it was known as “shell shock.” But there was little validation of these soldiers’ suffering at the time, and it was often seen as a sign of moral weakness. In World War II, the problem recurred (sometimes referred to as “battle fatigue”) and there was some progress in the study, treatment, and recognition of post-traumatic psychopathology.

It was not until the Vietnam War, however, that the mental health field truly mobilized to study and develop treatments for the emotional aftereffects of trauma. In 1980, five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder was published in DSM-III. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is the official diagnostic manual for the mental health field. DSM-III was the third edition.)


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