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Shame prevented soldiers from expressing war traumas

Researcher Ville Kivimäki at the Academy of Finland science breakfast

After the Second World War, Finnish psychiatrists felt that soldiers had readapted to civilian society very well. The reason was not that Finnish soldiers were exceptionally strong, but that war psychiatrists put the blame for long-term psychological problems on the soldiers themselves. Thus explains researcher Ville Kivimäki, who is involved in the research project “The War That Follows Peace” funded by the Academy of Finland.

Soldiers very rarely sought compensation for psychological war injuries. According to Kivimäki, this does not indicate the non-existence of the problem: “Refusing to talk about traumatic war experiences is related to a deep-seated culture of shame and very limited resources for veterans to express their traumas. War psychiatry had a profound impact on the creation of this culture. Even though the restrictive and stigmatising aspects of war psychiatry might seem repulsive, it did establish a certain type of reality, defined possibilities for the existence of soldiers and veterans, and created tension between traumatic war experiences and the culturally acceptable forms of expressing them.”

According to Kivimäki, war psychiatrists were not just quacks, but primarily emphasised that soldiers presenting with psychological problems be quickly brought back from the front lines for treatment. Disabled patients were not forcibly returned to the front lines, at least according to official directives. They were given assignments in which they could best serve their country.

Psychiatrists sought to treat their patients first with rest and encouraging words.

If this was not enough, and the symptoms seemed to indicate mental weakness in the patient, shock treatment, using cardiazol, electrical current and insulin, would be administered.

In special units, patients were put to work, but they were also treated with abuse and severity. The patients, who were often thought to be faking their symptoms, were ostensibly forced to “flee back to health”.

The objective of Finnish war psychiatry was a male citizen psychologically capable of going to war. The practice of war psychiatry was based on this. The goal was to objectify ambiguous individual psychological symptoms into a medical diagnostic language and establish a psychiatric organisation and therapy to fulfil the national mandate of war psychiatry.

Kivimäki’s research is based on psychiatric articles published on the diagnosis and treatment of soldiers’ psychological injuries during the period 1930–1954.

Niko Rinta | alfa
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