Archaeology as a therapy

Can an archaeological dig help to treat PTSD?
14 August 2018

Interview with 

Jennifer Wild, University of Oxford


A brain sparking with electricity.


How effective can archaeology be as a therapy for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)? The University of Oxford’s Jennifer Wild gave her opinion to Georgia Mills...

Jennifer - PTSD in and of itself has a natural recovery. So unlike other psychiatric disorders over time, within a five year time period, the majority of people will recover from PTSD, so about 60 percent of people. However, whilst that sounds optimistic; one it means that 40 percent of people won’t, and two that means for a five year period people are still suffering from their life being turned upside down - they’re relationships falling apart, being unable to work.

So whilst PTSD does have a natural recovery, it is important to offer treatment early on. The best treatment for PTSD is trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on the trauma and helping the person to pull apart the trauma in a lot of detail and start to think about it differently so that, with the help of a therapist, the person can break the link between the past and the present and overcome the debilitating symptoms.

So you think archaeology is a novel form of treating PTSD is an exciting idea. We’ve been talking about trauma focussed cognitive therapy and one of the components of that treatment is actually going back to the site of the trauma where it happened. This is really important because often people have beliefs or feeling like the site of the trauma is frozen in time, and it hasn’t changed, and it’s completely dangerous and overwhelming and I won’t be able to cope if I go back.

The therapist would often, as much as possible, go back to the site of the trauma either in person or, if that’s not possible because it’s happened in another country, by Google Street View. We would look at it on computer together and look at what’s different now and often the client realises that the site has moved on and it no longer contains all of the dangerous, traumatic features that were there when the person went through the trauma.

In terms of veterans, using archaeology to come to terms with PTSD as a way forward this is novel and potentially could be really helpful because it’s not exactly their trauma site, but there will be reminders of their trauma when they’re there. And if they can focus on what’s different and what’s helpful, and what people did that was helpful who were involved in that particular battle, then this may help them to see the trauma site in a different way and thing about, and reflect on their own trauma site in a different way which may help to reduce some of those memory symptoms that they’ve been having.

Midge - My names Midge Spencer. I’m a British Army Veteran. I served for 25 years in the British Army as a combat medical technician. I started to have mental health problems and I’d had problems over the years and didn’t really understand what was happening and didn’t say anything about it because it’s not a good thing for your promotion and such like, you know to admit that you might have some mental health problems. So I kept it to myself really and I was then basically isolating myself from the world. I didn’t go out, I didn’t see anybody but my wife. If somebody phoned the house and I didn’t recognise the number I wouldn’t answer it.

After my first year here I mean it just gave me an interest back in life really. So talking to the academics while I was here I told them that I’d dropped out of my Masters degree and I felt a failure as a result of that which, of course, adds to the cycle of depression and negative thinking. They encouraged me to sort of try and re-engage with it. Several months later I contacted my old supervisor to see if I could get back into it to just finish my dissertation because that’s all I needed to do, and they’ve made it so that I can do that. So I’m working on that now and I have to submit my dissertation by the end of January next year - 2019.

Georgia - What about the project do you think that...  or have you taken a personal benefit from it?

Midge - I’ve taken a personal benefit because it gave me back an interest in myself, an interest in life in general, a sense of purpose. It brought me back into engagement with fellow veterans, people who felt the same way that I did. I mean before this I sat at home thinking I’m the only one who feels this way and, of course, I’m not. But because I didn’t go out and engage with others I didn’t speak to anybody else with similar circumstances.

This is my third time but already, just at the beginning of week two, I can see changes in some of the guys from when they first arrived last weekend. I can already see them coming out of themselves. And it changed my life more than I can really explain.


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