A journalist’s battle with PTSD

dean yates

When the psychiatrist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder at the end of our first session early this March, I finally had to accept I was unwell.

The flashbacks, the anxiety, my emotional numbness and poor sleep had long worried my wife, Mary.

I had played down the symptoms, denied I had a problem. Five months later I’d be in a psychiatric ward.

I covered some big stories as a Reuters journalist. The Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, the Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia’s Aceh province in 2004, three stints in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and then a posting to Baghdad as bureau chief from 2007 to 2008.

From 2010 to 2012, based in Singapore, I oversaw coverage of the top stories across Asia each day.

Then, after 20 years working in Asia and the Middle East, it was time to settle down. I moved my family in early 2013 to the Tasmanian village of Evandale, population 1,000, to edit stories for Reuters from home.

Rather than relaxing in Tasmania, the beautiful Australian island where my wife was born, I unravelled.

In a letter that was painful for her to write, Mary, a former journalist, outlined her concerns to the psychiatrist ahead of that first session.

“When we came home to Tasmania three years ago it was a real ‘tree change’ for Dean and he spent much more time with the family.

“Very soon I began to notice changes – a loud-noise sensitivity, a quick temper, irritability, impatience, and an atmosphere of what seemed like misery that sat like a pall over the household,” Mary wrote.

“I began to wonder if he had PTSD. He does say there are certain images that will remain with him for the rest of his life.”

Dozens of sights, sounds and smells are indeed seared into my memory.

The severed hand I nearly trod on in the wreckage of the Sari nightclub in Bali. The more than 150 bloated bodies I counted in a mosque in Banda Aceh after the tsunami. The wailing that pierced the Baghdad office on the morning of July 12, 2007, when word reached our Iraqi staff that photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, had been killed in an attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter.

Calm, Rational, Decisive

PTSD results from exposure to a single traumatic event or an accumulation of traumatic experiences.

The term is relatively new.

It first appeared in the benchmark of modern psychiatry, the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in 1980.

That came after years of lobbying by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization and by psychiatrists who had treated soldiers with problems stemming from their service in Vietnam.

Psychological trauma has been around far longer, of course. The term shell shock was used to describe soldiers who broke down during the trench warfare of World War One.

PTSD doesn’t just affect soldiers. Police and rescue workers are at risk. So are civilians caught in war zones or natural disasters, as well as victims of sexual assault and car crashes. Continue reading

  • Dean Yates is a former Reuters reporter
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