The minds of prisoners of war, bombed civilians and Holocaust survivors from World War II are being examined in a University of Newcastle research project.
Historian Elizabeth Roberts-Pedersen is working on the three-year research project, with a $400,000 Australian Research Council grant.
As part of this, Dr Roberts-Pedersen will on Wednesday give a public seminar titled, The POW experience: the captive mind in World War II psychiatry.
The seminar will be held at the university’s NeW Space campus in Newcastle.
Her research shows that psychiatrists tended to distinguish between prisoners of war in Europe and those held by the Japanese in the Far East.
“Their initial conclusions seem counterintuitive: that it was the POWs from Europe who seemed worse psychologically than the survivors of the Japanese camps,” she said.
The basic argument was that neurosis was incompatible with starvation. The theory went that the conditions in the Japanese camps were so appalling, the POWs were “fighting simply to survive”.
“In Europe, the conditions were generally better and so the POWs had more time to mull over their predicament. That was the theory, at least.
“In the years after the war, it became increasingly apparent that the survivors of the Japanese camps had suffered terribly and continued to experience various problems.”
She said it was not always possible to “disentangle the physical effects of starvation and tropical illnesses from psychological symptoms”.
Furthermore, the belief that a “shell-shocked or war neurotic soldier might have a constitutional weakness” lingered through both world wars.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the focus shifted away from “the personality of the patient to the traumatic nature of whatever event precipitated the troubling symptoms”.
This was when PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] was included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
After this, it became “easier to make sense of the problems of ex-POWS, she said.
The experiences of Allied POWs in Europe differed greatly from those in the Japanese camps.
In Europe, ex-POWs “often point to the value of distraction”.
This would include things like “taking classes, attending lectures run by other POWs, learning a language and gardening”.
“It’s different in the Japanese camps, where accounts speak about the value of friendship but also the effort that went into simply surviving,” she said.
“But it’s also important to note that not every ex-POW wanted to talk about their experiences, and so the picture is fragmentary.”
Dr Roberts-Pedersen said there was no time for psychotherapy during WWII, “even though many practitioners see it as the best sort of treatment”.
“Because of the scale of World War II, military psychiatrists had to deal with lots of patients in an expeditious fashion,” she said.
She said the war advanced “various physical interventions that were being developed for asylum patients in the 1930s”.
Convulsive therapies, for example, became more common.
She said the war marked the beginning of “a turn away from Freud towards more biomedical understandings of psychiatry”.
“World War II is also the context for some significant theories that continue to influence psychiatry and psychology.
“Attachment theory, which describes the bonding between a mother and infant, has its roots in the study of children separated from their parents in occupied Europe and in London during the Blitz.
“And the concept of ‘survivor guilt’ stems from studies of Holocaust survivors.”
Dr Roberts-Pedersen said her research covers “the broader topic of Anglo-American psychiatry in World War II and the immediate aftermath”.
“Quite a lot has been written about World War I and shell shock, as well as the relationship between the Vietnam War and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I wanted to know what happened in between.”
Her research had shown the “extent to which psychiatry was concerned not just with male combatants but the whole spectrum of wartime societies and war victims”.
“This includes war workers, bombed civilians, children, displaced persons and Holocaust survivors.”
The seminar will run from 7pm to 8pm on Wednesday.