The silent generation: how attitudes to mental health have evolved since WW2.

There are a lot of things that separate millennials and Gen Z’ers from their surviving grandparents. Our attitudes towards marriage and sexuality, religiousness, lifestyle and even fashion choices; but perhaps among the most crucial, is our attitude towards mental health.

I never met my great grandparents. However, through ancestry research, I was able to trace the second world war records of my maternal great grandfather, where I confirmed the family suspicion that he had been a prisoner of war in Japanese captivity during his time in the air-force. It felt a lot like I was unraveling a mystery, retracing the steps of him and his brothers and what befell them. To understand the extent of their trauma, it’s important to unearth the details of the stories that they never felt able to tell.

My great grandfather Joseph and great grandmother Helen.

Joseph Michael was born in January 1919, and started his service in 1939 at only 20 years old. He was a member of the air force, posted not in Europe as you might picture when you envision the second world war, but in the South China sea on the Eastern front. He and his battalion were on distant, foreign soil, in a climate that was a far cry from frigid Scotland, fighting against the Japanese Army; who’s language they certainly hadn’t learned in secondary school.

For those unfamiliar with military history, the war extended to Japanese territory in December 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Japanese forces had already occupied Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1940, and had been fighting in China since 1937. Now they were staging a hostile takeover of Hong Kong (then under British rule) and sending troops into the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo and Indonesia. Joseph was sent to help defend Indonesia (then called the Dutch East Indies) from attack, but he was captured in 1942 in Bandoeng, when the Japanese took over the country.

Joseph was imprisoned by the Japanese in Java (an area of modern day Jakarta). He was transported from Bandoeng to Batavia’s ‘prisoner of war camp No.1’ on a vessel known now as a ‘hell-ship.’ On these boats, passengers – all there against their will after their unit surrendered – were packed into the hot, stuffy hulls like cargo and treated with incredible inhumanity.

From there, their lives didn’t improve much more at all. They were prisoners of war, and POWs in Japanese custody were treated far worse than those in other nations, treated so harshly that their conditions are now considered to be a breach of international law; a war crime. This was because the Japanese viewed surrender as cowardice and harbored no respect for those who would willingly give themselves up – as though they had any choice in the matter.

They were kept in inhospitable conditions with very little food or enrichment, leading to many dying from diseases like malaria, while others died from injuries sustained at the hands of their captors. Joseph would have witnessed countless men dying and suffering every day, with a death rate of 27%, and such would have likely become the ‘norm’. It is likely that this induced a desensitized state of mind, which is required to survive under such conditions.

Joseph’s position on the ‘hell-ship’ he was transported on.

In fact, Joseph’s own brother was tragically killed while he was a prisoner of war; John. John was born in 1917, and served as an infantry private in the 2nd battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (A&SH). The 2nd Battalion fought ‘valiantly’ against the Japanese Army during the fighting in Malaysia and Singapore, and were one of very few British units that was prepared for the jungle warfare, earning them the nickname ‘the jungle beasts’. John was initially deployed to Malaysia, but he was reported missing on the 15th February 1942 alongside two of his brothers, Patrick and Sylvester. He was later confirmed to have been taken as a prisoner of war.

The battalion had surrendered in Singapore in February 1942. Many Argylls consequently died in the surrounding jungle trying to avoid capture, but most became prisoners of war to the Japanese.

John was deemed fit and well enough to work, and so he was forced to march to Kanchanaburi POW camp to work along the Burma-Thailand railway, built to supply the Japanese forces in Burma while bypassing vulnerable naval routes. It is better known as the “death railway”, because of the huge amount of POW’s and enslaved Asian civilians who died constructing it. Estimates sit at around 16,000 POW’s and 90,000 civilian casualties as a result of this project. Their causes of death ranged from construction accidents, beatings from their Japanese masters, dehydration, malnutrition, or most commonly disease. John likely worked on the bridge on the River Kwai due to the original location of his body close by to it, but died in 1943 during a cholera outbreak, 3 months before the bridges completion. His parents received the news back in Scotland through a letter, but his brothers would not find out his fate until much later.

Another Fitzpatrick brother – Patrick – was a miner before the war, but he started his service in 1939 when he was 26 years old. He was in the 2nd Battalion of the A&SH much like John, as a lance-corporal. However, he was captured in Weiheiwei in China while guarding ex-British civilian territory during an attack by the Japanese, on the 30th of January, 1942. He was declared missing fifteen days later, much like the rest of his unit, and was eventually confirmed to have been taken as a POW to Pudu camp in Kuala Lumpur when the battalion surrendered.

Patrick’s POW record

Incredibly, the war stories don’t end there. Sylvester was another of the brothers, who entered into the Royal Scots Fusiliers as a private. He was deployed to France at the start of the war, and wounded in June of 1940. However when the Japanese entered the war, he was redeployed to the Eastern front with the A&SH, where he worked in a field hospital in Malaysia as a medical orderly for the heavily depleted British Sumatra battalion. He was initially found to be missing in February of 1942 upon the Argyll’s surrender, but was later confirmed to be a prisoner of war, like John and Patrick. He was transported from nearby Singapore to a POW camp in Saigon – likely aboard one of the aforementioned hell ships – where he was confirmed to be in March 1943. Sylvester was later awarded for gallant and distinguished service in the field, however, for his long service. I’m sure that this recognition did not overwrite the memories of lives he could not save, or of injuries he himself sustained in combat.

Finally, there was Anthony. As the youngest brother born in 1922, Anthony would have likely enlisted under a false name and age at only 17 years old. We know that he enlisted, but his whereabouts are very difficult to trace. He began serving as a sapper for the royal engineers within the air-force, but in early 1942 he was wounded, and his time in the forces was cut short. He likely could not face the shame of returning home to Scotland, because the next known record of him is in a newspaper in Hull, England. This paper in February 1944 details how Anthony – who had “2 brothers prisoners of war and one serving” – was sentenced to 3 months in prison and 12 lashes for attacking a woman while intoxicated and attempting to rob her. This disgrace ended his engagement with his then-fiance, and was attributed to a problem with alcoholism developed after his disrupted service. This was perhaps an early indication of the damage done to the psyche of the Fitzpatrick brothers.

Even after victory for Britain and it’s allies was declared in 1945, many of those serving on the Eastern front did not return until 1946, long after their POW camps were liberated. When they returned, they were already seen as the ‘forgotten’ army, left to waste away in a place that was out of sight and out of mind when compared with those returning from the European front; for upwards of three years. They suffered unimaginable cruelties and witnessed atrocities that no human being ever should, but by the time they got back to their home country, Britain was moving on from the war. Rebuilding efforts had begun and the population as a whole was trying to forget, trying to keep that blitz spirit of ‘keep calm and carry on’. As a result, many POW’s returning from the East were explicitly told not to speak of the war or their experiences. This was ingrained in them as they made the long journey home, and is likely a massive contributing factor as to why so few of them told their stories, much less spoke publicly about their trauma or – god forbid – sought psychological help for it.

Upon returning home, my great-grandfather Joseph had three daughters and three sons with his wife Helen. My grandma recalls her father Joseph very little, as her memory is now impacted by dementia, but she said that he was always a stern man. He was a quiet and distant sort. Though my grandma cannot testify as to how he was before the war, it always felt that there was a wall between him and his family that he meticulously built, though it could not conceal the haunted look on his face. He would not speak of what had happened to him. In fact, we know more about him now after his death than any of my family knew while he was alive. Many families at the time felt that this distance between them and their father or husband was normal, because so many other families experienced the same thing; most of their men had also fought in the war. But perhaps as a result of so much pent-up anger and trauma, and from such an abrupt shift back to normal life after spending half a decade among soldiers in a foreign land, he became harsh and violent.

My grandma and her siblings grew up on a farm, and she once recalled that after tearing her best Sunday dress and blaming one of the family chickens, said chicken was swiftly beheaded by her father in-front of her. The chicken was only one victim of his temper, though. I’m told that he would often lash out and strike my great grandmother and that in a time of patriarchy, she would take it, having no understanding of what he had endured and feeling it her duty as a wife to defer to him. However, she was also an incredibly devoted mother, and would often ‘run away’ with her children to protect them from their father’s rage. Because of this, they would spend time scattered across the homes of their aunts and uncles, split up from being young teenagers. Some were too young to remember anything but an extended sleepover. Others vividly recall eventually returning home to see their parents reunited, and feeling incredibly unwanted by their father.

One of the boys struggled for a long time with containing his anger, and when he was only seventeen he went out with the intention of venting it. He stabbed an older man to death, and was imprisoned for many years for the murder; a crime which maybe could have been prevented, had he been given support to process his tumultuous home life in a healthy way. Or even, if his own father had modeled healthy coping strategies for his children, and expressed vulnerability instead of aggression.

A generation of men went to war with my great-grandfather. A generation of men came home with damaged minds, and many beat their wives and children – passing on the trauma – while others had to be locked away in the draconian asylums of the 20th century. Not to help them, perhaps; but to hide them. We had won the war and that had to be it. It wasn’t good for morale to be airing the countries ‘dirty laundry’ out in the open.

We all hear now about shell-shock, in the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but it’s important to remember that these poems were censored at the time of their writing. Men may have left the beaches of Normandy and the battle of the Somme physically uninjured, may have returned home from Indonesia and Thailand with a lovely suntan and no battle scars at all, and were considered the lucky ones. They likely thought they were the only ones unable to sleep at night. To express emotional suffering was not the done thing, and the only ‘treatment’ available for a long time was dangerous insulin or electroshock therapy, which would certainly put me off the idea of speaking out.

What impact did this have on their children, I wonder? Looking at my own family, I believe that they created a second generation of silent sufferers. Discussing mental health was a taboo, and my grandparents today still know little of depression, anxiety and trauma. They see these things as new-found weaknesses of the children they raised. But when old Mary down the street has to be admitted to a psychiatric ward for taking too many painkillers, they suppose that the old bird was simply mental, mad, ‘gone over the bend.’

On the contrary, mental illness has always existed. Depression plagued the ancient Greeks, schizophrenia was common in the Tudor dynasty, and anxiety has always run through families as a basic evolutionary adaptation. In fact, even the father of the Fitzpatrick boys – himself named Patrick Joseph – fought in the first world war, and had it written on his pension papers that he suffered from ‘psychasthenia’. This term is now disused, but it’s symptoms refer to what we understand today as PTSD, and translates directly to ‘mental weakness’.

Patrick Josephs WW1 pension record

Our knowledge of mental health and the labels we attribute to disorders may change, but the prevalence of illness does not. For example, what a person finds traumatic is typically relative to what has happened in their own life. Although it’s easy to claim that something faced in the UK today cant be traumatic because it isn’t as ‘extreme’ as what happened in the UK in the 1940’s, this is simply not the case; the two can’t be compared and nor should they. For the older generation alive today, their perspective is of a different society, with a different point of reference for traumatic events, and a different attitude towards expressing that trauma. Individual differences aside, this doesn’t mean that they cognitively respond to trauma any differently than a person born in the 2000’s. The only difference in today’s youth is awareness, prompting a greater acceptance of self-expression.

Psychology is now a respected scientific field, and the imposing Victorian asylums that were still very much a fact of life until as late as the 1990’s have now been closed forever. The mentally ill in society are taken care of with compassion and respect within their communities or in general hospitals, where all can see them, removing the grim fascination and intrigue of the mentally ill which drove stigma for so long.

I have grown up educated on anxiety, and so I could recognize it in myself, and seek treatment knowing I’d be regarded kindly and without prejudice. This was not the case a generation ago. Had I been born in the fifties or sixties, I may well have been committed indefinitely simply due to a lack of understanding. The stigma behind mental health may have killed just as many – if not more – than the disorders themselves. And if it didn’t kill them, it will have impacted the way they saw their own struggles, and driven an inclination to drown ones sorrows in a beer bottle rather than admit to distressing thoughts and memories.

There must be something scarring about growing up in a time when a woman facing post-partum depression faces being locked away in a ward to face daily electroshock therapy, like my great aunt Violet did. It makes a lot of sense now that when my Grandad described his panic attacks to me, and I told him what they were, he insisted they were simply an age thing, although he had already mentioned having these ‘funny turns’ for as long as he could remember. Nobody wants to be mentally ill, but if you were my Grandad, and a woman with panic disorder had been imprisoned for 37 years in an asylum during his formative years (a case that did truly happen) you would perhaps find denial to be a useful survival mechanism. Ignorance can be bliss.

And so, I have noticed that we now live in a very strange and divided world. As the young people scream and shout about the state of mental health care and the importance of awareness, the older generation – who are perhaps most severely impacted by these troubles due to their lack of support – plug their ears and fall silent. I wonder what my great grandfather would have thought if he’d lived to see me studying psychology. Perhaps he’d finally have spoken about what happened to him and his brothers during the war. Or perhaps, the damage would have been done, and the fear of stigma and judgement would be too intense for him to face.

Our generation are not snowflakes. We are brave (and fortunate) enough to face our troubles and seek help for them, and kind enough to see illnesses of the mind as equal to illnesses of the body, not to lock away our mentally ill like prisoners or circus acts. The silent generation, though, are not unkind, and not cowardly; but rather less educated to the true nature of mental illness and the modern approach to treatment. Mental illness is not a problem of the youth, but a problem of humanity; and I hope with all of my heart that they will listen to our pleas to raise awareness, and choose to widen their minds to a more compassionate future.

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