War Trauma: The Psychological Consequences of War
Any traumatic experience that stems from military conflict is considered war trauma, and all war trauma can lead to mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.
By: Sarah Fielding
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
August 8, 2023
Table of Contents
Cross-national and civil wars are a part of daily life for soldiers and civilians worldwide. The pain, suffering, and displacement that come alongside a traumatic event is an ever-present aspect of this ongoing violence. The emotions and circumstances connected to this violence are known as “war trauma” and can potentially bring long-term consequences to a person’s mental health and well-being.
So, what is war trauma? Simply put, it’s a blanket statement covering any traumatic event experienced while preparing for, living through, or serving in a war. Adults and children alike feel the impact of war. A 2022 Children In Conflict report from Save The Children found that 468 million (one in six) young people worldwide lived in a “conflict zone,” and 1.7 billion young people (two out of three) live in a country impacted by conflict. Children are also sometimes used as spies, soldiers, or cooks in conflicts around the world, Unicef reports.
War trauma is often considered to be something soldiers experience in combat zones, where they witness atrocities like mass death and destruction. While this is undoubtedly the case, war trauma also impacts civilians in war zones and active duty members not stationed in direct combat. “Support personnel and medical personnel come back with trauma from seeing, treating, or in some cases even hearing about traumatic events,” says Dr. Christopher Hansen, a licensed professional counselor and a clinical supervisor at Thriveworks in San Antonio, Texas, and a disabled Navy veteran. Here’s what you need to know about what causes war trauma, the associated mental health disorders, and available treatment options.
What causes war trauma
Like any lasting painful experience, war trauma can take many forms — both for soldiers and civilians. According to Hansen and Dr. Jim Jackson, a trauma expert and a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center, causes of war trauma include:
- Witnessing war unfold
- Direct combat experience
- Seeing people wounded, mutilated, or killed
- Inflicting pain or killing another person
- Giving orders that lead to other people’s pain or death
“These traumas may be experienced while training or while deployed,” says Kiva Harper, a licensed clinical social worker and associate professor specializing in trauma treatment. A range of factors can determine whether a person develops war trauma and the degree to which it impacts them. Here’s an overview of the factors that can cause war trauma:
Soldiers should undergo training before deployment that helps prepare them for what they will face, but the quality of those exercises can determine how much trauma affects them. “People who have been trained effectively and realistically as well as indoctrinated into mental health resources tend to do much better than personnel that don’t have that type of training,” says Hansen. “Training cannot prepare you for every eventuality or situation in war, but what it does is instill confidence, muscle memory, and resilience.” However, Harper notes that the realities faced during training might also cause trauma.
Your mental state and past experiences determine how certain things impact you—including war trauma. As Harper explains, people who have lived through trauma before being in a war — and who might still be dealing with the mental impact of it — have a higher likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from deployment.
One traumatic experience can have a negative impact, and regular exposure to similar or equally painful events can take an even more intense toll. Jackson emphasizes that “repeated exposures to trauma can make people especially likely to struggle with mental health and functional problems of various kinds.” This applies to war trauma, too, meaning the more regularly people are exposed to war the more intense their trauma may be. These instances can particularly affect someone in the long term when witnessing something (or potentially having to do something) at odds with their morals.
What mental health conditions can stem from war trauma?
As if experiencing war trauma itself isn’t enough, it can also impact a person’s mental health long-term. Trauma affects each person differently and can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions — most notably, PTSD. According to a 2019 report from the World Health Organization, 22% of people who live in conflict areas have a mental health disorder, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression. For 9% of people, the condition is moderate to severe. Here are some mental health conditions that commonly stem from warm trauma:
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that stems from going through or even learning about one or more traumatic events.
PTSD symptoms include:
- Emotional numbness
- Difficulties with cognition and memory
- Reduced or a complete lack of pleasure for previously enjoyed things
- Physical pain like headaches
According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7% of veterans will experience PTSD at some point in their life, compared to 6% of civilians. However, that number jumps to 13% when looking specifically at women veterans. One of the causes of this might be military sexual trauma — which one in three women veterans who received Veterans Affairs healthcare reported experiencing. The same was true for one in 50 men. PTSD is one of the most regular mental health diagnoses received by people who have experienced military sexual trauma. As a whole, people who use Veterans Affairs healthcare have a higher rate of PTSD at 23%.
Anxiety and Depression
Yes, as far as mental health disorders go, trauma is most commonly associated with PTSD. However, people who experience war trauma might also develop into anxiety or depression. According to all the mental health professionals we spoke to, these conditions can occur on their own or in tandem with PTSD. Military sexual assault, specifically, is also frequently associated with depression.
Treatment for war trauma
It can be helpful for people to get mental health support before entering a war zone.
Treatments like cognitive processing therapy (CPT), prolonged exposure therapy (PE), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can help people cope with war-related mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
People impacted by war trauma can seek mental healthcare from organizations like Veterans Affairs, which serves veterans.
PTSD and other mental health conditions can’t necessarily be prevented in people who experience trauma, such as service members. However, having support systems on hand and working with mental health professionals before entering a war zone — if possible — can be beneficial. Effective war trauma treatment options can also help people cope with mental health conditions, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. PTSD-specific treatment, in particular, could be especially significant in helping a person work through the disorder.
So, what are some treatments for war trauma-induced PTSD? “PTSD is treated with a handful of therapies that have been found to work especially well, like cognitive processing therapy (CPT,) prolonged exposure therapy (PE), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR),” says Jackson. “These therapies can greatly improve outcomes, reduce PTSD symptoms, and help enable people to function better in many different areas, like work, home, and relationships.” Veterans and civilians who lived through a traumatic event in war can benefit from mental healthcare at any point in their lives. This support might come from a veteran-oriented organization like Veterans Affairs or a different mental health provider.
How Charlie Health can help
If you are dealing with trauma, including war trauma, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) offers group, individual, and family therapy to people in need of more than once-weekly therapy, including trauma survivors. Our compassionate healthcare providers utilize a range of techniques to help people understand and cope with mental health conditions, including PTSD and war trauma. Fill out our short form to get started today.