Since "Case 1" of shell shock, we still need to make far more progress. Photo: Getty
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100 years since the first case of shell shock, it’s time to prioritise mental health

It’s 100 years since the first documented case of shell shock today. What progress should we be making a century on?

One hundred years ago today, on the morning of the 31 October 1914, a 20-year-old private ventured out into firing line of the First World War for the first time.

We know from frontline reports that he and his platoon had just left their trench when they were "found" by the German artillery.

The explosions sparked chaos and confusion as everyone dived for cover. The young soldier was separated from his comrades and became tangled in barbed wire.

As he struggled to free himself, three shells rained down on him, missing him by only a few feet. Witnesses said it was sheer miracle that he survived.

But when the young man was admitted to hospital a few days later, it was clear to the medics that his close brush with death had left a mark on him the like of which they had not seen before.

History hasn’t remembered the young private’s name. Today we know him only as "Case 1" from a seminal report published early in 1915 by a Cambridge professor and army doctor called Dr Charles Myers.

It detailed the first documented cases of what Myers came to describe as "shell shock".

More than 80,000 members of the British Army had been diagnosed with the disorder by the time the First World War came to an end, including the famous war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. 

It was the first time that the authorities had ever been confronted with mental health trauma on such a scale.

Today most of them would have almost certainly been diagnosed as suffering from forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But when Myers was writing, the science of psychological injury was still in its infancy. And the Army didn’t know how to respond.

At first the breakdown of men under the intense pressures of conflict was seen more as a question of character. In the worst cases, patients were accused of cowardice or even desertion. There are appalling accounts of young men who desperately needed treatment for their condition but who were instead court martialled and sent to face the firing squad.

Soon it became clear however that the condition could not be written off as cowardice.

Myers came across countless soldiers mentally wrecked by what they had gone through. They included an officer haunted by memories of going out into "No Man’s Land" to look for a missing soldier only to find his friend’s body blown to pieces.

By the end of the war, Myers and his colleagues had developed pioneering techniques to treat their patients. A real but gradual change began in the way they were viewed by society.

When the Second World War came decades later, the psychological toll of combat was much better recognised. Army doctors were trained to recognise and treat the symptoms. The importance of rest and recovery away from the frontline was much better understood.

This progress is all part of a journey that we are still on a century later.

Today the long-term effects of combat stress are much more deeply studied than ever before. But the problem has not gone away.

Roughly one in every 25 British troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk of developing PTSD, with the proportion much higher among soldiers in direct combat roles.

The mental health charity Combat Stress – founded a year after the conclusion of the First World War – currently has a caseload of more than 5,400 veterans across the UK.

Last year they reported a 57 per cent increase in veterans from Afghanistan being referred to them – a number that is expected to rise as the last UK forces depart Camp Bastion.

The latest figures show that on average it takes 13 years after a veteran is discharged before they seek treatment with Combat Stress, many of them having tried and failed to access the help they need through the NHS.

It feels like a modern echo of challenges that our soldiers faced a hundred years ago. It underlines why we cannot afford an ounce of complacency.

This week alone experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and others have raised concerns that the government is failing to honour the military covenant.

A cross-party report by MPs has separately highlighted how many veterans suffering from PTSD risk falling victim to alcohol abuse, domestic violence, even entering the criminal justice system.

A century on since doctors first examined that young private – "Case 1" – there is clearly still much more we need to do to help those we ask to put themselves in danger for our country.

Mental health stigmas are diminishing, but they have not yet disappeared. This moment from history shows it’s time we prioritised the mental health not only of our veterans, but of everyone.

Dan Jarvis is the MP for Barnsley Central, a former Major in The Parachute Regiment, and Labour’s lead on the First World War centenary

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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