‘Splintered Innocence’ by Peter Heinl – the refugee crisis highlights a timely reissue of an important book about war trauma

Splintered innocenceWhilst writing Shell Shocked Britain I was lucky enough to talk to eminent psychiatrist Dr Peter Heinl, a man who has long been determined to raise awareness of, and work with, those suffering from the lasting effects of war trauma. He was an inspiration to me as I worked hard to make my argument about the lasting impact of the First World War, and was very helpful and supportive, reading the manuscript and commenting for the cover of my book.

So when he told me he was working on the re-issue of his important book, Splintered Innocence:an intuitive approach to treating war trauma and asked if I might help with the final proofreading, I was thrilled, flattered and convinced he had chosen the best time to publish it again.

In his foreword Dr Heinl says:

“I…hope that Splintered Innocence will raise the awareness of the terrible price wars exact from human beings and that it is worth fighting for peace……the topic of the long-term psychological effects of war…[on] children in particular is a field in great and urgent, if not desperate, need of receiving the attention it deserves”

In the first edition he refers to his work with survivors of the atrocities of the Second World War, but relates his findings to previous, and now subsequent, conflicts. Even before the most recent refugee crisis, he had highlighted in the book, and to me when we spoke, his concern that the legacy of the terrible civil war in Syria and the upheaval across the Middle East and Africa would be lasting psychological damage that will manifest itself over decades to come. Having seen the photos and films emerging from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe as desperate people flee unimaginable horrors, it  would be, surely, impossible to disagree.

Syrian-refugees-in-northern-Iraq-Christian-Aid-using-Syria-Crisis-Appeal-funds-photo-credit-Christian-Aid_Sarah-MalianThe fear on the faces of children pulled and pushed from adult to adult as they struggle to board trains to the West, the loss of life in shabby little boats as the last of a family’s life savings is taken by people traffickers who abandon them to the whims of sea, weather and coastguard , the struggles when safety is reached, but in a place with  no access to work, education or even housing and food – all these are, to Dr Heinl, indicators of the mental health crisis that could follow. Having written, in Shell Shocked Britain and subsequent articles, of the ways in which trauma can manifest itself years later, and across and down generations, I consider there to be years of evidence to support his assertion that people suffer, physically and psychologically, for the rest of their lives. Even if they themselves don’t realise it.

And that is the message one gets from this wonderful book, aimed primarily at other therapists but accessible to anyone with an interest in the way the human mind takes in and processes everything it experiences. The adults fleeing conflict show pain writ large on their faces and in their desperate and sometimes angry reactions to some new injustice. They have expected too much of a world which really has no idea how to provide a solution. The children are afraid, confused, terrified of losing those they depend on, clinging to a mother’s skirts or carried in a father’s arms, but they have no voice. The work Peter Heinl has done,  my findings in Shell Shocked Britain and the work currently being done with service personnel traumatised by their work in Afghanistan, Iraq and other global missions, highlight the fact that this trauma can lead to a life blighted by unemployment, substance misuse, homelessness and domestic violence. Relationships are harder to maintain when trust and attachment are issues and marital breakdown and periods of depression and anxiety are more common, as is suicide. Yet the root causes of these issues aren’t always obvious and are often missed; it takes a skilled practitioner to uncover, and help the man, woman or child to deal with the damage that has been done.

At the end of Splintered Innocence, Peter Heinl quotes the Greek saying ‘ War is the father of all things’ and relates it to the history of his native Germany, currently taking in the majority of Syrian refugees currently stranded in Europe. He goes on to suggest that  now we know the horrors war is parent to, perhaps we should re-write the saying as ‘Peace is the father of all things’, and who, witnessing the plight of the millions displaced by war in Syria, could pray for anything less?

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