Quora Question: How Do Prisoners of War Avoid Mental Breakdown?

Iraqi soldiers battling in Mosul
Soldiers from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division prepare to engage ISIS fighters, Mosul, November 11. The U.N. said ISIS is executing citizens of Mosul suspected of "treason" or the leaking of information. Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty

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Answer from Roland Bartetzko, former German Army paratrooper, Croatian Defense Council, Kosovo Liberation Army:

To stay mentally fit is most important for a prisoner of war. While many soldiers recover from the physical pain and injuries caused by torture, the psychological wounds inflicted are often much more difficult to heal.

I spoke to many prisoners of war during the war in Bosnia, and I've spent some time myself in a PoW camp , although not as a prisoner of war, but as an espionage suspect. Here are some observations that I've made during this time:

Every prisoner of war has another story as each individual reacts differently to stress. What might work for one person, doesn't do it for another. Still, there are things that can be done by everyone to better cope with the psychological terrors of a PoW camp. First of all, there is absolutely no way or method to infinitely resist psychological pressure. If they want to break you, they will do so. Knowing this, the best tactic to pursue is not to give your captors a reason to put pressure on you. Swallow your pride! They got you and there is nothing you can do right now anyway.

Stay flexible and collaborate. It's easier to break a stick than a piece of rubber. When you are interrogated, spill the beans! If you don't tell your captors what they want to know, they will take a special interest in you. Either way, in the end you'll have to tell them everything. This is an extraordinary situation and you have to do the smart thing and not what is pleasing your ego. Survival comes first. Even if you are able to avoid the worst tortures, you still have to deal with the mental strain which come from the hardships of being imprisoned.

Fortunately, there are lot of methods to bolster your mental strength which are proven to work in everyday life and which will also help a PoW:

  • A positive outlook on your future will make you more resistant to psychological stress. Never give up hope!
  • Autosuggestion: Tell yourself that you're strong and that you are a survivor. The human psyche is surprisingly susceptible to pep talk, even when it comes from yourself. I always called this method "Lying to myself." It works miracles in all kind of situations.
  • Accept what you can't change and live for the day: You have to survive your captivity one day after the other, so don't worry about tomorrow.

Another attitude which personally helped me a lot is self-awareness. Be curious about your surroundings, about everything: The guards, the fellow prisoners, the routines. Try to figure out what's behind the fence. Listen to the sounds that come from the outside and paint a mental image of the place you are in. This will also help you if you should decide to escape.

Stay in touch with reality. There is always the danger of becoming apathetic, of losing touch with reality and escaping into a dream world. This is a downward spiral which will lead to mental illness and has to be avoided at any price.

If you are a religious person then pray. You'll find consolation and hope; exactly what you need.

Talk to people. A nice and friendly chat with somebody is good for the soul.

If you are in isolation, tell yourself stories. Try to remember nice things that happened to you in the past. Pass your time by making friends with a bug, a fly or a cockroach.

Many mental problems will surface only after your release. Even if you feel fine, you should see a mental health expert immediately. Don't fool yourself: You are not okay.

Still, it could be much worse. You managed to survive and now you will also be able to deal with the rest.

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