Remembrance Day: Mental anguish needs more focus

Dr John Raftery.

Dr John Raftery.
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Thursday, 9 November 2000

REMEMBRANCE Day should have more of a focus on the dreadful mental toll war has exacted on thousands of Australian men - and subsequent generations of those men's families - according to an Adelaide University researcher.

Dr John Raftery from the Department of Public Health has carried out extensive research on Australians who fought in World War II, and says these men have not received post-war understanding or assistance for the mental conditions brought about by their participation in warfare.

"Commemoration days such as Remembrance Day and Anzac Day quite rightly focus on the sheer wastage of human life that occurs during wars and the sacrifices made, but I think they should also recognise the ongoing problems it creates for those who come home and the impact this then has on their loved ones," Dr Raftery says.

His PhD research discovered many Australian troops in World War II failed to be clinically diagnosed with mental illnesses caused by the war - a failure which has had enormous repercussions for those soldiers and their families. At the time, mental suffering was attributed to the individual being "weak", rather than being the effect of the brutal nature of war.

Dr Raftery, who has also conducted studies on the effects of war service on families, interviewed more than 100 veterans from several battalions about their wartime experiences during and after the war. The majority of men interviewed had coped well on the surface both during war-time and in later years. A small percentage were identified in their time as having serious mental health problems, and who had very disrupted lives of heavy drinking, experienced intrusive treatment and, in some cases, committed suicide.

"A significant number of other men, however, led productive lives and managed outwardly, but in fact were very disturbed inwardly by remnants of war at various stages in their lives," Dr Raftery says. "Their difficulties were never adequately recognised and they avoided admitting difficulties because of the stigma of mental illness. Medical authorities generally argued that the psychologically damaged should not be compensated.

"The effect of making negative reactions to war a mental illness severely constrained the opportunity for men and women to talk about and make sense of their experiences. At a broader level, the impact of unparalleled suffering and loss of life associated with war has never been adequately discussed. It has left a large gap in our Australian psyche."

 

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Dr John Raftery
Email: jraftery@camtech.net.au
The University of Adelaide
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