Decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany, one third of political prisoners of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) still suffer from sleeping disorders, nightmares and irrational fear, say professor Andreas Maercker and PD Matthias Schützwohl, who have examined the post-traumatic consequences in former political prisoners over a period of fifteen years.

Maercker, Head of the Department of Psychopathology and Clinical Intervention at the University of Zurich, and Schützwohl, Group Leader at the Clinic and Polyclinic of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Dresden University of Technology, interviewed 146 former political prisoners in the mid-1990s. 15 years later, they studied the majority of those concerned, 78 men and 15 women, again. 

“To our surprise, post-traumatic stress disorder is still present in a third of the people studied,” says Maercker. “While some have recovered compared to 15 years ago, in others the stress disorder has only manifested itself in recent years.”

In all, such a delayed or recurrent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was apparent in 15 percent. It is known from studies in other countries, mostly on prisoners of war or other victims of violence, that delayed or recurrent PTSD exists, though to a lesser extent. Maercker and Schützwohl say they are the first to demonstrate this for former political prisoners. 

Other psychological disorders that former GDR prisoners suffered from decreased during the 15 years. Specific phobias such as claustrophobia were less common. The number of people addicted to alcohol and medication also fell. However, the number with acute depression went up to 41 percent of those studied last year. At both time points, a more or less equal number suffered from anxiety disorders such as panic disorder (24 percent last year). 

“We made another key discovery: Those affected tend to rate their own psychological condition after their release too poorly in retrospect but their current state more realistically,” says  Schützwohl. From this, the authors conclude that there is no distortion of memory for the purposes of a current desire for compensation, for instance, but rather that psychological factors play a role in the tendency towards a negative life evaluation.

Citation: Maercker et al. Verläufe von Traumafolgen bei ehemaligen politisch Inhaftierten der DDR: Ein 15-Jahres-Follow-up. Nervenarzt. Doi:10.1007/s00115-012-3646-y