The advent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has long been associated with the emergence of mechanized warfare. However, PTSD is not a new mental condition by any means – it has been around for centuries, albeit under different guises.
While PTSD was not formally recognized as a mental disorder until the 20th century, its effects have been documented throughout history. In fact, some of the oldest documented instances of PTSD date back to Ancient Greek poems – Iliad and The Odyssey.
In these epic poems, Homer describes the effects of battle trauma on the heroes Achilles and Odysseus, respectively. Both men suffer from what would now be classified as modern-day PTSD, exhibiting symptoms such as anger, compulsive and violent behavior, and memory loss.
In his account of the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus also mentions how Epizelus, an Athenian soldier, went completely blind from the shock and horrors of witnessing a friend killed in battle.
Other ancient depictions of PTSD have also been found in Indian and Icelandic literature, among other ancient civilizations.
Nostalgia and Soldier’s Heart
Modern documentation of PTSD began when Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgia” in 1688 to describe the sleeplessness, despair, and homesickness experienced by mercenaries fighting far from home. Around the same period, Spanish, French, and German also recorded similar symptoms in patients involved in military combat.
In his book Inventum Novum, Austrian physician Josef Leopold Auenbrugger wrote about soldiers who fell into a state of torpor after being subjected to the traumas of warfare. These soldiers, he wrote, became listless and withdrawn, and nothing seemed to help them recover.
The American Civil War
PTSD finally landed on the American shores during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the condition was, at the time, mainly associated with fear or cowardice. As a result, many soldiers suffering from PTSD symptoms were subjected to ridicule or ostracized.
Following the Civil War, doctors noticed unusual symptoms among the veterans, such as constricted breath and heart palpitations that were not associated with physical injuries.
It was then that the term “soldier’s heart” was first used to describe the condition. The doctors believed the symptoms were caused by the overstimulation of the nerves controlling the heart due to the stress of warfare.
During the late 1800s, train accidents increased significantly as the railways became the leading mode of transportation. And not surprisingly, many of the victims of these accidents exhibited similar symptoms to those seen in soldiers with PTSD, giving rise to the term “railway spine.” However, the connection between the two did not become apparent until years later.
World War I & II
Shell shock was a term used to describe the effects of combat trauma on soldiers during the First World War. The symptoms, which included anxiety, tremors, amnesia, and loss of vision and hearing, were thought to be the after-effects of shells exploding in the field.
While many soldiers were able to recover from shell shock with time, some never fully recovered and carried the scars of war for the rest of their lives.
PTSD became even more prevalent during World War II, this time under the name “combat fatigue.” It’s estimated that around half of the military discharges during WWII were due to battle fatigue.
Modern-Day Understanding of PTSD
PTSD became a recognized mental illness in 1968 when it was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) under the name “gross stress reaction.”
The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” was finally adopted in the 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) to accurately reflect the nature of the condition.
Since then, our understanding of PTSD has grown by leaps and bounds, and so has the field of PTSD treatments. Today, PTSD is no longer seen as a sign of weakness but as a serious mental illness with far-reaching consequences. With treatment, most people with PTSD can also live happy and fulfilling lives.