Did WWII vets have less PTSD?

We all know the stereotype. Veterans of the Greatest Generation fought for a noble cause and had few after effects when they returned to civilian life. Although “shell shock” and “combat fatigue” had been identified in previous wars, the syndrome of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) characterized by intrusive recollections, avoidance/numbing behavior and hyperarousal, had not yet been conceptualized.

PTSD symptoms were often present in combatants immediately after WWII, declined for several decades, then recurred. Frequent diagnoses given included anxiety, depression or personality disorders. For many WWII vets, PTSD symptoms became prominent in later life, suggesting that factors such as divorce, deteriorating health, retirement and death of significant others may have been a factor.

It seems therefore likely that the 6-31% lifetime prevalence of PTSD is similar in combat veterans of any war. Why then did WWII vets play down their symptoms? Some possible explanations include:

  • “inoculation” against deprivation and trauma while growing up amidst the Great Depression
  • returning home in victory to a thriving economy, deterred reporting negative experiences and their after effects
  • a powerful negative stigma regarding mental illness in the culture
  • the use of alcohol to deal with emotional pain was widely accepted and somewhat romanticized