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Med J Aust. 1995 Dec 4-18;163(11-12):619-21.

Psychiatric casualties in the Pacific during World War II: servicemen hospitalised in a Brisbane mental hospital.

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Wolston Park Hospital Complex, Brisbane, QLD.


World War II created many psychiatric casualties but precise incidences were not accurately established. Battle shock was under-reported as some commanding officers were reluctant to admit that their men experienced battle stress. The objective in triage of any casualties was to retain as many patients in the war zone as possible, if further useful service was feasible. This also applied to soldiers with stress-related symptoms, who were treated in base hospitals as near to an operational zone as possible. The main treating maxims were "immediacy, proximity and expectancy", which involved rapid early treatment in the war zone, hoping for an early return to duty (which often meant active duty). Only those with severe psychiatric illness were sent back to their home country. The medical officer had to be sure that the patient had not responded to treatment before sending him home. During the war, the terminology used for psychological responses to the stress of combat was derived from several classifications in textbooks. Psychiatric nomenclature, barely adequate for civilian psychiatry, was totally inadequate for military psychiatry during that period. The aim of classification was to facilitate data collection rather than to provide definitive diagnoses. Psychiatric therapies during World War II were, at least to some degree, diagnostically non-specific. Diagnosis varied according to the soldier's proximity to the war zone (i.e., less severe diagnoses were given to men closer to the frontline, who would be required in battle). In addition, as psychiatrists were rarely available, medical officers without relevant (or having only limited) specialty training usually diagnosed and treated soldiers with psychiatric problems. At the beginning of the war, traumatic psychiatric reactions were classified into psychoneurosis, anxiety state and anxiety reaction, psychoneurosis mixed, and conversion hysteria. By the end of the war, the United States Surgeon General released a revised nomenclature with two new diagnostic categories: transient personality reactions to acute and special stress; and neurotic-type reactions to routine military stress. It was not until the 1950s that formal criteria for the diagnosis of trauma appeared, in the first diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-I) of the American Psychiatric Association.

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