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Army PTSD Figures Rise as 'Shell Shock' Brain Injury Identified

By Senior Associate, Military Claims

After new figures revealed that the number of British soldiers suffering mental illness has jumped by a third, researchers in the United States claim to have identified the brain injury responsible for “shell shock”.

Concerns about the long-term impact of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have been raised as official Ministry of Defence (MoD) figures show the number of British Armed Forces personnel with "mental health disorders" has risen from 3,927 in 2011 to 5,076 in 2013.

After more than a decade of British combat operations in the Middle East, statistics from the first half of 2014 suggest the number of soldiers afflicted with post-traumatic stress order (PTSD), depression and other mental health issues looks set to rise to a new high.

It is nearly 100 years since the term “shell shock” rose to prominence after an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps studied the symptoms of three traumatised soldiers on the Western Front. By the end of the First World War, the army had identified 80,000 individual cases and war neuroses accounted for one in seven men being discharged from service.

What was first recognised as shell shock in 1917 is now commonly referred to as the anxiety disorder PTSD – although the condition as we know is not only restricted to war zones – a delayed and often devastating response to trauma that can provoke behavioural change, suicidal tendencies and recurring distressing memories, nightmares and flashbacks.

Researchers at John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore performed autopsies on U.S. combat veterans who survived improvised explosive device (IED) blasts in Iraq and Afghanistan but died later of other causes.

They discovered what they describe as a “honeycomb” pattern of broken and swollen nerve fibres in the brains of the dead servicemen, a pattern they now believe is responsible for the condition officially termed as “blast neurotrauma” which still affects many soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan where the use of IEDs was widespread.

Each of the veterans had suffered the same kind of brain injury affecting the critical brain regions that control decision making, memory and reasoning. Molecular probes were used to study the lingering effects of blast injuries on the brain, revealing a pattern of tiny wounds known as lesions, believed to be fragmented nerve fibres caused by bomb blasts.

The researchers compared the veteran’s brains to those of people who had died from a number of causes including drug overdoses, heart attacks and road accidents. They discovered the honeycomb pattern found in the soldiers’ brains was distinctly different to brain damage caused by road accidents, drug overdoses and collision sports.

It is understood that these hidden brain injuries play a significant role in the psychological problems many veterans face after leaving the military and entering civilian life. Doctors treating victims who have survived IED attacks routinely see symptoms such as depression, adjustment disorders, drug abuse and anxiety.

According to the MoD, between one in four and one in five soldiers are believed to have a mental health disorder. Many critics dispute these figures however as they are based on a study completed in 2009 and since then the UK has been at war for another five years. In addition, the study failed to include veterans and as such cannot account for any delayed onset of PTSD.

The UK's leading mental health charity for veterans, Combat Stress, say since the 2009 study, the number of soldiers seeking help after serving in Afghanistan have jumped by an average of 50% each year.

It is vitally important the UK Government continues to support soldiers with mental health issues as they move from active service into retirement. Since 2011, more than 12,000 service personnel have been made redundant, many of whom will have been actively involved in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We need to understand that the human costs of these conflicts will not disappear any time soon. On the contrary, thousands of personnel will need on-going specialist mental healthcare and it is paramount the government recognises their responsibility to provide mentally ill veterans with the kind of treatment they need.

Out of the many thousands of personnel having recently returned from operations there will inevitably be many hundreds suffering with PTSD and/or associated depression and anxiety disorders, who haven’t yet appealed for help.

Mental health issues caused by traumatic combat experiences can become worse over time and often don’t surface until many years later. The treatment and recognition of such issues in the Army has come a long way since the dark days when conditions like depression were widely seen as a sign of weakness but there is always room for improvement.

Those suffering with PTSD need to be reassured that their condition is normal, their needs are a priority and there are services specifically available to them.

The MoD has pledged more than £7m towards combating mental health disorders and insists it is committed to providing all service personnel with the support they need. There are currently 16 Departments of Community Mental Health across the UK together with additional centres overseas, and campaigns such as “Don’t Bottle It Up” have been launched to encourage more armed forces veterans and serving personnel with PTSD to come forward.

Zoe Sutton is a Senior Associate Lawyer specialising in Military Injury Claims at Slater and Gordon Lawyers.

Slater and Gordon specialise in helping ex-armed services personnel claim the financial compensation they deserve, helping them cope with the debilitating effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For a free consultation call Slater and Gordon Lawyers on freephone 0800 916 9046 or contact us online and we'll be happy to help you.

We were the first law firm to secure a court award for PTSD, in the case of New v MOD. The client, Malcolm New, was awarded £620,000 in damages after our military psychological injury expert demonstrated that the MOD had failed to identify and treat Malcolm's condition.

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