Oh dear – it is our first New Year’s Eve in France and I feel all wrong. Isn’t Christmas peculiar? I commented on a friend’s Facebook post yesterday, one in which they asked how many others were feeling like ‘two peas in a drum’ after the visitors had left. Responses, including mine, suggested they were far from alone. The intensity and joy of a happy Christmas (and I recognise that many find it a deeply lonely and distressing day), all the preparations, the presents, the anticipation and the sparkle can leave a very hollow feeling in their wake. I know from social media that many fall ill with viruses even before the celebrations get going, so I feel especially peevish complaining after four lovely days with our grown-up children, but I feel really low now they have returned home. Suffering as I do from anxiety and depression I have to note how vulnerable I feel, and take steps to recognise the triggers. So uneaten food remains in the fridge and their beds aren’t going to be stripped for a while yet…
My husband has a very sensible view of the celebrations – he could hold them at any time of year, he says. It is just a matter of getting the right people around you and focusing your attention on them, instead of on work, phone or laptop. We played lots of board games over Christmas and talked. In fact, the kids talked so much they squabbled just like the old days and I really felt like ‘Mum’ again. In the real world, on the remaining 364 days of the year, I am whatever passes for ‘myself’ so it came as a nasty shock to feel so bereft and lacking in purpose when they went home. I have always loved the Pam Ayres poem ‘A September Song’, in which she describes the feelings of a mum watching her son packing up for University. Lines such as:
…a ghastly leaden feeling like the ending of it all
I am fearful of the emptiness when you depart the room,
And a silence settles round us like the stillness of a tomb
describe perfectly the emptiness in our house now the liveliness of our two twenty-somethings, with their endless iPhone notifications and the dust of London on their feet, are back living their own lives. They are fledged and building futures in the real world. Peter and I will continue our French escape, knowing that they both loved our new home. They’ll be back and we’ll be over, so it isn’t the end of anything. But Christmas, the party side of it anyway, does that to us every year – it expects something of us, asks us to get excited and then whips the sparkle out from under us without so much as a by your leave. It’s a wonder we fall for it – but we do (and I love it while it lasts!). It is at times like this that I envy people of faith (any faith). The Christmas Nativity offers so much to look forward to and hope for, with possibilities for happiness that most of us find hard to relate to in the 21st Century.
So it is the end of another year. We will wake up tomorrow morning and it will be 2019. I have lots to look forward to – more books to write, a first spring in Brittany, the challenges of learning French (very slowly) – and must try and relax and just let it all be. I’ve never managed to do that before, so my hopes are not high on that one, but it is worth giving it a go.
I know, as the first fireworks light up the wintry skies, that apart from good health and happiness, I am wishing for a Trump resignation, a People’s Vote on Brexit (and a change of mind), a flicker of acknowledgement that the world is heading in a direction, towards hatred and intolerance and perhaps even war, and a drawing back from that and from the push for more and more ‘stuff’ that inevitably damages our planet.
I am sure I will be called a hopeless dreamer but hey ho, I can’t be any other way.
So a very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, and thank you for your support in 2018. Hopefully, I will blog more regularly in the coming months so I hope you will stay with me as I try to stop wriggling out of writing…
Whilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health(Pen and Sword Books October 2014), I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July 1st to November 2016.
They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.
Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.
The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.
It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war, leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.
So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.
So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.
Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.
As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.
To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.
By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.
Albert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.
2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.
As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.
To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.
Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.
“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”
In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.
Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road(above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.
Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.
Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.
Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.
In the spring of 1896 the body of an infant was found in the Thames near Reading. This gruesome discovery exposed the nefarious crimes of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. Notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer advertised in the newspapers for babies to look after for money, strangled them and disposed of their bodies in the river. Over a century later, the question still remains: was Amelia Dyer mad or bad?
There is no clear evidence that Dyer suffered from any mental health issues during her childhood, despite the early deaths of two siblings and her mother. She established her baby farming business in her home city of Bristol, in the late 1860s and the first documented incident of possible psychological problems arose in 1879, when a coroner opened an inquest into the deaths of four babies in Dyer’s care, following a suspicious death certificate. When police called at Dyer’s house to take her to court they found that she had taken a laudanum overdose, which prevented her from appearing. This was the first in a series of drastic actions taken by Dyer seemingly to avoid the law.
In the early 1890s Amelia Dyer’s situation as a baby farmer became increasingly precarious, when a governess tried to claim her child, after her circumstances had changed. The bereft mother came several times to Dyer’s home and even brought a police officer on one occasion. Each time Amelia Dyer had a breakdown, was certified ‘insane’ and committed to the asylum. She made two further suicide attempts, by cutting her throat with a knife (she only sustained a slight scratch) and by throwing herself into a pond. Dyer spent three brief periods in the asylums at Gloucester and Wells, after which she returned to her baby farming trade.
When Amelia Dyer was finally brought to trial for murder at the Old Bailey on 21 May 1896, much of the evidence focused on the key question of her sanity. All the doctors who treated her in Bristol testified. Dr Thomas Logan described how Dyer had threatened to break his skull with a poker, leading him to conclude that she was suffering from brain disease and her ‘insanity’ had been exacerbated by mental anxiety. Dr Lacey Firth examined Dyer at Bristol Hospital after her drowning attempt. He believed that she was melancholic, but not insane. A third doctor came to the conclusion that she was ‘of unsound mind’.
In an attempt to unravel the mystery of Dyer’s mental state, the judge called upon expert witnesses. Dr Forbes Winslow had examined the prisoner in Holloway. Her delusions and hallucinations led him to believe that she was insane. However, the prison’s medical doctor claimed that she was not. The final expert medical witness was Dr George Savage, from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a renowned doctor with ‘long experience in lunacy’. His final conclusion was that Dyer was not suffering from ‘homicidal mania’, and that the crimes were not the act of an insane person. Despite the contradictory evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Dyer was sentenced to death.
The final word on this debate should go to those who were closest to Amelia Dyer. Her daughter, Mary Ann Palmer, told the court how her mother alternated between quiet periods and bouts of extreme violence – she had threatened Mary Ann’s life several times. Interestingly, it was Mary Ann who had told the doctors in Bristol about her mother’s mental health history, while they were considering her treatment. The person with the least reason for incriminating Dyer was Jane Smith, also known as ‘Granny’, an elderly woman whom Dyer had rescued from the workhouse. After visiting Dyer in Reading Prison, a journalist asked Granny if she thought the prisoner was ‘trying the old game on’, to which she replied, ‘I do; but I don’t think she will get off so easily as she has done before.’ Mad or bad, Amelia Dyer was executed for her crimes on 10 June 1896.
Today I welcome to No Wriggling Denise Bates, whose latest book, Historical Research Using British Newspapers is published by Pen and Sword this month. I have often written on this blog of how useful I found the British Newspaper Archive in my research for Shell Shocked Britain and at all my talks I stress how important a resource old newspapers are. Denise has used my experience, and that of other writers, as case studies in her book. In this post she looks at the ways in which research into mental health can be enhanced by reference to the newspapers. Shell Shocked Britain was inspired by a cutting found when I was undertaking some family history research, so imagine what you might find in those fascinating old pages…..
Old newspapers are no longer an archive resource mainly used by seasoned researchers. An internet connection and a log-in enable anyone with an interest in the past to read old newspapers, at a time and place which is convenient to them. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past and digitised newspapers now offer anyone who is intrigued by topics that fall outside the academic or commercial mainstream a way of pursuing their own interests. Sometimes the subject-matter of historical research has been driven by the academic or the publishing community meaning that some topics have effectively fallen ‘out of history’. Some writers have been too keen to make a point at the expense of accuracy and, for some topics, finding material to learn from has been a practical problem. Newspapers can be very helpful in all of these situations.
Mental health in the nineteenth century is a subject where newspapers contain a rich repository of material for investigation, to supplement existing knowledge about life in the asylum or the hysterias supposedly experienced by females. When I researched Pit Lasses, my book about the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines until the job was banned for them in 1842, I had hoped to discover something about their mental well-being but found scant information in the records of the time. A fortuitous breakthrough came when I traced a newspaper report about an unnamed female who had died at a Lancashire Colliery in 1844. The case was included in Frederick Engels’ political tome, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels was keen to show that women still laboured underground and suppressed the inconvenient fact that the teenager did not work at the colliery but had killed herself by jumping down the shaft.
No reason for Margaret Wignall’s suicide was given in the brief paragraph, but as more newspapers became available on-line I discovered a detailed report of the inquest into her death. The Mines Act of 1842 had cost Margaret her job and other work was hard to find. She had briefly been employed as a children’s nurse but was dismissed because of her rough manner of speaking in favour of a more refined girl. Presumably depressed by her inability to earn her keep, perhaps nagged by her parents on this point, she took her father’s lunch to him at the pit and then killed herself in public view. The truth about her untimely death is much more complex and shocking than Engels’ text suggested.
Margaret’s is just one case amongst many reported in nineteenth century newspapers where an individual may have suffered mental health problems. My breach of promise research found several broken engagements where one of the parties probably had schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or depression, although this was not recognised at the time. Not all individuals turned to the devastating outcome of suicide but it is clear that many struggled to cope without support or understanding from of those around them.
As these brief examples show, newspapers contain a wealth of information on many subjects, but it is not always presented a direct manner. An open-minded researcher who is prepared to commit time to locating and interpreting information drawn from newspaper reports may make discoveries that enhance our understanding of the past, or even challenge existing beliefs about it.
My sincere thanks to Denise for writing this post, and do look out for her book in all good bookshops, or find out more at the Pen and Sword website.
Historical Research Using British Newspapers by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in April 2016. Her previous books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry are also available from Pen and Sword.
It is hard to keep my blog up to date at the moment, with lots to write and things to think about, but I can never resist the opportunity to write about John Keats for the lovely Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog. In the past two years I have written about how a particular Keats poem speaks to me, about his time at Guy’s Hospital undertaking medical training and a piece on the work of two young film makers taking ‘La belle dame sans merci‘ to new audiences.
This week I am on there again, looking at the ways in which the letters written by Keats offer inspiration and solace in difficult times, and how much of his work can be seen as ahead of its time in its relation to current psychotherapy practice. In his letters you can find expressions of what it means to be ‘mindful’, being accepted for who you really are, learning to cope with anxiety and depression, and finding inner strength. You find empathy and a willingness to walk in another person’s shoes before judging. To really understand how wonderful his poetry is, read his letters and get to know the man. His philosophy is at once melancholy and heartening.
Anyway, you all know how much I love his work and how appealing is his character. Take a trip over to The Wordsworth Trust blog and see how he wrote those inspirational quotes so much better than all those you find on your Facebook news feed.
I would also recommend you take a look at the other posts on Romantic subjects, posted regularly on the blog. They are fascinating and offer a terrific picture of the Romantic period. I am proud to be on there.
I sit at my PC. My hands hover over the keyboard, my mind trying hard to focus on the letters. I will them into words, sentences, paragraphs. I flick through my folders of research; the articles I must read, the chapters I have identified in the books taken out of The London Library. But it isn’t right. It is never right. The words are there but they are not fit for purpose and refuse to get into shape. I switch to the internet, searching for inspiration on twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Nothing but distraction, they only add to a sense of frustration and an anxiety that increases as the minutes and hours pass.
I turn to the social media and blogging work I do for others – that is fine. My editing and proofreading work is going well. I am not letting clients down, just myself.
I have tried so hard not to write this post. Don’t get me wrong – it is not through any feelings of shame at admitting my years of battling depression and anxiety (anyone who knows me and this blog will know I am totally open about my mental health issues and have a page devoted to posts on the subject by me, and by others) but because I felt I had nothing to add to the discussion of the Germanwings plane crash tragedy and subsequent media treatment of the story. I shared a couple of posts on Facebook, but quickly realised how wound up I was feeling and made the decision to step back and observe, as people I respect and mental health organisations made statements I heartily endorsed.
But this morning, having read a great post from The Blurt Foundation and more of the marvellous Matt Haig (whose book about his own experiences of depression Reasons to Stay Alivewas published last week), and seeing the vitriol being poured forth by Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan on twitter, I can resist comment no longer.
What are people like Hopkins and Morgan FOR? Who do they think they are representing? Why should they be allowed to berate those with mental health issues on a public forum in the most hateful and bullying terms and be allowed to get away with it? I am not going to give any more publicity than is absolutely necessary to the comments Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made – if you are interested you can go on their twitter accounts – but the general gist is that those of us with depression are self-absorbed, malingering, attention seeking hysterics who are only after a sick note. In addition, we are a danger to the public and, as a consequence of the Germanwings crash ought not to be allowed to use anything resembling machinery. Continue reading “How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead”
Writing Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health I quickly realised that although it was, on the face of it, a book about the aftermath of the First World War, it had a very modern significance. I have now given a lot of talks about the book, and the impact of the trauma on the soldiers and their families during and after the Great War. Invariably, an audience member will ask me a post-talk question about how far I think things have changed for service personnel over the past century. One hundred years ago there was little understanding of the mental health needs of civilians, let alone those facing the horrors of conflict, but today? No excuses surely?
So I was really interested to read in the press today that the number of servicemen and women suffering from mental illness has risen by almost a third since 2011, when significant cuts to the defence budget took hold.
The Daily Telegraph published official Ministry of Defence figures showing the number of Armed Forces personnel with “mental health disorders” has risen from 3,927 in 2011 to 5,076 in 2013, a rise of 28%. It is anticipated that the figures for 2014 will show a further steep rise.
How far this rise is related to a greater willingness to discuss mental health issues is unclear. Certainly the Ministry of Defence attributes the rise to a drive to raise awareness, including the ‘Don’t Bottle it Up’ campaign, but are challenged by veteran’s charities who believe that a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the rise.
The Telegraph quotes Colonel Stuart Tootal, who led troops into Helmand Province in 2006:
“You cannot ignore the fact that the Army has just spent over 10 years on intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan…..You have soldiers who have been exposed to intense operations. There is pressure on their families and pressure on themselves, often during long tours.”
Researching Shell Shocked Britain I uncovered many stories of families destroyed by the mental scars men returned with. It was very difficult for many to slip back into civilian life and they might break down months or years after war ended, unable to relate to their families, find employment or forget the terrible things they had witnessed.
Col. Tootal continued: “We have come a long way. There is better recognition of mental health and more awareness, but more can be done. We have to remember that the mental scars of war are just like the physical scars.” He would like the government to commit to continuity of support as soldiers (and the problem is most acute in the Army) move into retirement.
After the First World War men who were physically wounded were given far better pension provision than those who were suffering long-term psychological problems, and although that is no longer the case, it is still often difficult for service personnel who break down after leaving the army to convince the MoD that it is related to their time serving their country.
The Telegraph piece comes in the week that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, claims there remains an “unspoken bias” in Britain that prioritises physical illness ahead of concerns about mental health. As someone who has worked in the field and written about mental health issues on a regular basis I can say this is most certainly the case.
These figures were published following a Freedom of Information request made by The Daily Telegraph to the MoD. They are certainly not figures that are widely published, but then the Ministry of Defence is no different from many other organisations who may be reluctant to admit that their staff are under increasing stress and experiencing mental ill-health. More than £7 million pounds has been allocated to support service personnel with conditions such as PTSD and depression, which is laudable but only effective is utilised in the right way. Co. Tootal is right – only by making sure a man or woman leaving the Forces has continued support can we reduce the higher levels of family breakdown, domestic violence, crime and homelessness that are often a consequence of psychological trauma and which affect the war veteran now, as they did 100 years ago.
So we must hope that the budget cuts affecting our Armed Forces do not extend to the psychological support available. I end my talks with the hope that the centenary of the Great War, if it has one long-term outcome, raises awareness of the impact of war trauma down the generations, something which has affected many over the century and which will continue to blight lives if robust action is not taken.
Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman
That is us told then…those of us who think ourselves writers. I found another contemporary writer willing to pass on their advice, Barbara Kingsolver, a woman whose work I admire as a rule:
It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.
Oh dear – she isn’t willing to collude with me either. Help……
At the risk of worrying my publishers, I can’t write at the moment. Well, to be more accurate I can’t write books at the moment. Clearly I am writing this blog post, and I have written another post for wonderful The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on new ways of interpreting John Keats’s poetry. But nothing else seems to make sense as it leaves my brain and reaches the screen. Even my love of writing with a pencil in my favourite notebook seems to produce nothing of any meaning. It is a tough time, and worrying about it seems to make it worse.
Shell Shocked Britain, a book that took two years of research and writing, was published by Pen & Sword Books in October. Since then I have done lots of talks and have been marketing it madly on blogs, in magazines and via twitter and Facebook. It has gone well, but I feel as if it has been sucking inspiration and motivation out of me. I am not sure if other writers feel this way, although I suspect it is more than likely, but for me I know this feeling is a route into a more general depression. Scary.
I was of course anxious about the success of Shell Shocked Britain– all writers want to be read. It is a book about mental health – looking at the shell shocked men and families who lived through the Great War 100 years ago and examining how the trauma still resonates with us today. It has sold well (I was well aware it was a niche subject, albeit an important one) so why are my anxiety levels so high that it is hard to work? Why am I railing at myself for my seeming inability to engage with the world in a healthy way?
Telling myself to ‘just write’ is not really working, unless a post like this is in some way building up to a wonderful bill-paying opportunity. I write because I enjoy it; I also write because there are bills to be paid and I have found sharing my thoughts and knowledge in articles, on blogs and in talks offers an opportunity to make an albeit meagre monthly income. Asked recently whether I would, as it were, ‘sell out’ and write commercially rather than for love then the answer had to be ‘yes’. Just because I don’t adore it doesn’t mean others won’t, and there is always the chance that an idea that really grabs my imagination will materialise from the most unexpected of places.
My mood is low, my anxiety high and my inspiration flown. I have two more books to write over the next two years and must start making sense of my notes. It feels terrifying. As always, my ability to procrastinate remains stubbornly expert. Perhaps I should take Neil Gaiman’s advice:
Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”
Certainly, thinking ‘Oh my goodness I have to write 200,000 words before the end of 2016’ is giving me palpitations and preventing me from writing even 200.
As is always the case, in life as on this blog, I turn to John Keats to put me right. In Endymion, a patchily brilliant poem he wrote before his most stunning work was penned, he says:
But this is human life: the war, the deeds, The disappointment, the anxiety, Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh, All human; bearing in themselves this good, That they are still the air, the subtle food, To make us feel existence, and to shew How quiet death is.
from Endymion, Book II, l.153-159.
Maybe this period of post book blues is all part of the plan then, and I am simply ‘feeling’ my existence as a newly published writer.