They Didn’t Call it PTSD a Hundred Years Ago

PTSD missionaries and NER workers

A few weeks ago I read a review of The Fighting Season by playwright Sean Harris Oliver. Produced in Vancouver in January, it was about the trauma suffered by Canadian medics, doctors and nurses working at the Kandahar military base hospital in Afghanistan. It reminded me of the remarkable people I’m writing about in the late Ottoman Empire. We tend to associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with soldiers who have experienced the horrors of war. But as the play pointed out, civilian health-care professionals and humanitarian aid workers can, and do, suffer from PTSD, too. They didn’t call it PTSD a hundred years ago, but many of the missionaries and Near East Relief workers returned to their homes in the United States and Canada in dire need of “a prolonged rest.”

In 1915 almost all of the missionaries in Turkey witnessed the shock of seeing their Armenian, Assyrian and Greek students, students’ families, neighbours, and even their co-workers suddenly forced into deportation marches. Many of them personally witnessed either murders or the immediate aftermath, or both. American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau wrote that it was difficult and dangerous to travel from the interior to Constantinople, but that several “missionaries succeeded in getting through. For hours they would sit in my office and, with tears streaming down their faces, they would tell me of the horrors through which they had passed. Many of these, both men and women, were almost broken in health from the scenes which they had witnessed. In many cases they brought me letters from American consuls, confirming the most dreadful of their narrations and adding many unprintable details.”

In 1919 when the missionaries and NER workers were allowed back into the country, they encountered hundreds of thousands of disease-ridden, half-starved people—not only survivors of the genocides, but also Turkish peasants. The need for humanitarian aid was overwhelming. Even though WWI was over, there was renewed fighting because of the Greco-Turkish War. Thus, the workers had the unenviable task of providing relief in the middle of a war zone. And it went on in various parts of Turkey for four years (May 1919 – November 1922). The physical risk was high, and the psychological risks even higher.

Writing of present-day workers, Robert Muller noted in Psychology Today that studies have found “over 70% of aid workers consider the debriefing and support that they received on their return home to be insufficient. And, many experience long term effects such as sleep disturbances, appetite changes, emotional shifts, and depression.” Some of the workers of a century ago reported similar occurrences. And some, like Susan Wealthy Orvis, ended up hospitalized.

It’s not an understatement to say that these remarkable people risked their lives to save others.

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