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East German past and mental health

German Federal Ministry of Education and Research sponsors Mainz-based joint research project on risk and protective factors arising from life in the GDR to the sum of EUR 3.8 million

Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz

The Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is coordinating one of the 14 projects that the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding to promote scientific investigation of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the injustices of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). The Mainz-based DDR-PSYCH joint research project, which is expected to start in February 2019, will be investigating both risk factors for mental health due to the political system as well as resilience-enhancing factors. Scientific results are expected to lead to a more precise understanding of causes and effects of mental health risks and protective factors arising from life in the GDR.

Even though Germany was reunified more than 25 years ago, the former GDR and its socio-political system have remained a point of reference for the analysis of societal, social, and individual processes - in the eastern as well as the western states of Germany. Both among academics and the general population there is a lacking knowledge about the GDR. Over the next four years, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research will be providing up to EUR 40 million in total to fund 14 joint research projects to fill in these gaps and to facilitate the discourse on the GDR and injustices of the SED party.

One of the projects selected for funding by the BMBF is the joint project "GDR past and mental health: risk and protective factors" (DDR-PSYCH). The proposed funding is expected to amount to approximately EUR 3.8 million. Researchers from the five research facilities in the joint project will investigate the way the GDR system affected its citizens. Despite the fact that an entire all-German generation has grown up since German reunification, there are still separate memory cultures in the East and in the West. Headed by Professor Elmar Brähler, Professor Manfred Beutel, and Dr. Ana Nanette Tibubos of the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the Mainz University Medical Center, the research teams will be investigating which memories of the past GDR have an impact on mental health and how these can be assessed. They will also attempt to identify the corresponding risk and protective factors in individuals who lived in the former GDR and analyze the reasons for the differences found between the citizens of East and West Germany.

The objective is to obtain a more precise understanding of the causal relationship between mental health risks and protective factors of socialization in the GDR and mental health. Research findings will be transferred to societal discourse. In order to achieve this core aim, the DDR-PSYCH research project will also involve the development of a website visualizing findings by video clips. A living history website will present the life-stories of individuals, who will be played by actors.

"Lack of freedom of opinion, treatment of refugees and dissidents, bans on education and occupation, lack of freedom of travel - doubtlessly, GDR citizens were confronted with psychologically stressful conditions," explained Professor Manfred Beutel, director of the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy. However, he emphasizes that research into the differences of prevalence of mental disorders in the old western and new eastern states produced contradictory results. For this reason, the researchers are hoping to shed light not only on political system-related risk factors but also on those factors that promote mental resilience. "Socio-political factors of the GDR which may have promoted lasting psychological resilience of individuals have largely been ignored in research. One notable example is gender policy, which largely had a positive effect on the professional careers of women in the GDR. In the DDR-PSYCH study, we are not assuming that the structures in the GDR had a solely negative impact on the psychology of its citizens. We have deliberately formulated an initial hypothesis that contradicts widespread assumptions and those models that explicitly presuppose an adverse situation."

"Based on in-depth longitudinal data sets, our joint research group will be the first to investigate the impact of GDR-specific experiences, such as opposition, resistance, incarceration, and confiscation of property, over time on psychological well-being. We will be attempting to assess the differences and similarities in the mental health of East and West Germans. For this purpose, we will analyze five large-sized population surveys that were undertaken at different points in time. The aim is to learn more about the socially-related influences of the GDR on mental health," explained Professor Elmar Brähler. "We will also undertake another representative survey to specifically investigate the mental health of internal migrants within Germany, who migrated at different time points between East and West Germany."

Dr. Ana Nanette Tibubos, also from the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the Mainz University Medical Center, added: "There is already a large number of publications based on qualitative data on the impact of the GDR. We therefore decided to focus our project on the still insufficiently researched topic of the quantifiability of effects that the GDR had on mental health.Involved in the research project will be the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), the health surveys of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), representative surveys by the Independent Service for Survey Research, Methodology and Analysis (USUMA) commissioned by Leipzig University, and the Gutenberg Health Study (GHS) of the Mainz University Medical Center. The age range of subjects in the study population is 14 to 99 years, covering several generations and encompassing the entire spectrum from adolescence to adulthood. In total, 83,000 cases will be subjected to longitudinal analysis and 67,000 cases to cross-sectional analysis."


Participating in the DDR-PSYCH joint project are researchers of the Mainz University Medical Center (coordinator and principal investigator) and teams from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin), the University of Greifswald, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, and the Greifswald University Hospital. The project is scheduled to begin in February 2019.

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