Shell shock was a mysterious malady that left soldiers incapacitated.
The terrors of the trenches left some soldiers quivering and incapacitated. Gradually shell shock came to be recognized not as cowardice but as a mental illness.
The intensity and trauma of trench warfare had profound impacts on the human mind. Soldiers exposed to the horrors of war began to break down, exhibiting a variety of symptoms that included shaking fits, insomnia, amnesia, and the “thousand-yard stare.”
The coinage “shell shock” came from the initial belief that proximity to exploding shells caused microscopic damage to the brain, which then caused these reactions. When those who were nowhere near the front lines also began to show signs of breakdown, this explanation was brought into question.
Doctors were uncertain what triggered shell shock, and they debated how it should be treated. Medical treatment ranged from encouraging rest to electric shock therapy.
The military remained skeptical about the legitimacy of the illness. Without a physical explanation for shell shock, the blame shifted to personal weakness. Those who showed signs of breakdown were characterized as cowards. Over the course of the war, roughly ten thousand Canadians were diagnosed with the condition; many more likely suffered but were too ashamed to let their suffering be known.
By the Second World War, the term “shell shock” was replaced with “battle fatigue” or “combat stress reaction.” Over time, the medical community came to recognize the illness as a legitimate psychological condition. In 1980, veterans and mental-health professionals successfully lobbied for the inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).
Today the Canadian Forces use the term “operational stress injury” (OSI) to describe any “ongoing psychological difficulty that results from duties performed during military service.” This category includes several disorders including PTSD, which we now recognize as a mental-health condition. Despite efforts to provide awareness and better treatment of OSIs, many sufferers still feel the stigma associated with mental illness.
A nurse administers electrotherapy to a patient suffering from “psychoneurosis” during the First World War.