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Wednesday, September 9, 1998 Published at 18:29 GMT 19:29 UK


The battle to beat traumatic memories

The sydrome affects people who witness violent events

Fifty years on, and still the memories traumatise world war two veterans who took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Since the release of Steven Spielberg's war movie Saving Private Ryan, there have been reports of American veterans needing counselling after seeing the film.

While some critics pin the blame on "gratuitous violence", others believe the real culprit could be post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The syndrome, which is also known as shell shock, is a disturbing psychological condition where people relive painful memories against their will. This leads to feelings of isolation and a sense of losing control.

[ image: Actors prepare to recreate the 1944 Normandy landings in Spielberg's film]
Actors prepare to recreate the 1944 Normandy landings in Spielberg's film
It is not only US veterans who are haunted by unwanted memories.

Human shield

UK civilians who were held captive as part of Saddam Hussein's "human shield" in the 1990 Gulf war relive traumatic memories day after day, yet they cannot find the treatment they require.

People who have witnessed acts of violence - either on themselves or others - are particularly prone to the syndrome.

Ms Margaret Searle, a clinical psychologist who for more than ten years has helped military personnel overcome the condition, explains how memory is thought to work.

No one fully understands the mind's workings but latest research suggests memory works by connections rather than being stored in neat units.

Ms Searle said: "The memory for an event is distributed amongst various sites and the process of remembering involves the creation of a variety of connections."

Memory works

A memory can be called up by various means, she added. "It can be called up by a particular sound, it can be called up by a particular sight, or a particular smell."

Memories which have a high component of these sensory elements can suddenly be called into a person's mind unrequested.

"This can lead to a sense of loss of control," said Dr Singer.

Dr Matthew Freidman, of the US Department for Veteran Affairs, said the experience is like living through the original event a second time.

"It is like a psychic time machine," he said.

[ image: Frontline soldiers are vulnerable to the condition]
Frontline soldiers are vulnerable to the condition
Veterans who watch Spielberg's film may experience therapeutic effects, as it will remind them of an event they can "justifiably feel very proud of".

However, for those who were severely traumatised by the horrors of the second world war, the film can have an adverse affect.

Reliving the horror

Such a patient will be "engaged with the Normandy beach head as he was 50 years ago".

But horrific events are not confined to the first half of this century.

Josie Brooks runs the Gulf War Support Group, which helps civilian hostages beat the memories which make their lives hell.

She and her husband started the group after a friend of theirs returned from Kuwait in 1990. Their friend had been traumatised by the experience of being held hostage, yet help was nowhere to be found.

"I asked social services to get me a proffesional social worker and they said 'we cannot afford it'.

"I am angry. I did not want this task."

However, with no one else willing to help, Ms Brooks felt unable to desert the sufferers.

One of the people the support group has assisted is Diane Hall.

Iraqi invasion

Diane was married to a Kuwaiti man and was visiting her parents-in-law when Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait in 1990.

She describes her traumatic memory an encounter with Iraqi. It came as the couple left their apartment after days in hiding.

"We got into this car and drove around the corner - straight into a roadblock. We were pulled out of the car at gunpoint and they started negotiating with my husband.

"They were saying that if I was nice and kind to them and I kissed them and held their hands they would let us go.

"In the end we had to fight for our lives.

"My husband said if you want to take my wife you will have to shoot me first."

While being held captive, Diane witnessed sights such as soldiers separating young boys and old men from the rest of the hostages and taking them away.

"It distressed a lot of people," she said.

[ image: Soldiers have received treatment but civilians are left to cope alone]
Soldiers have received treatment but civilians are left to cope alone
After she returned to Britain her husband managed to escape Iraq and join her. But, said Diane, they had grown far apart.

She described the transformation she underwent in the wake of the incident: "Before I went to Kuwait I was happy-go-lucky, full of energy, with lots of energy for life.

"But all that has changed now. I feel like I have lost every bit of energy I had.

"I carry a terrible amount of sadness around with me."

Post-traumatic stress syndrome can destroy a person's life. Ms Brooks says there are similar emotions among all the civilians who were captured, and is angry that there was no support for them on their return.

Patients cope alone

"People thought it wrong to come and moan about their experiences. They saw it as a weakness and therefore they tried to cope alone."

Ms Searle agreed that the syndrome requires professional attention.

She advised: "If people are experiencing problems then a good route to try and access help is via the NHS, via their GP and a referral to psychiatric and psychological services.

"There are tremendous problems about resources in the NHS, but there are also tremendous problems for people experiencing these kind of difficulties."

Based on the weekly series "All In The Mind" with Professor Anthony Clare, broadcast on Radio Four on Wednesdays at 4.30pm.

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