Fergal Keane: My journey to living with PTSD

Recent horrors of war in Ukraine have raised new concerns about trauma suffered by people who are witnesses to such extreme violence.

Fergal Keane: My journey to living with PTSD

Recent horrors of war in Ukraine have raised new concerns about trauma suffered by people who are witnesses to such extreme violence. Millions of people worldwide suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Fergal Keane from BBC explores the effects of PTSD and how it can be healed. Fergal was diagnosed with it in 2008.

I was bouncing back and forth between my mind and the outside world all day and into the evening. Do I stay or do I go? It was mid-February, and I knew that war was imminent in Ukraine. From my Kyiv hotel room, I could see a skyline that might be lit soon by the fire of explosives.

Part of me that wanted the opportunity to tell one of my greatest stories ever longed to be there. It is also the part of me that is drawn towards danger, which has caused anguish in my personal life through PTSD.

My mental health was in serious danger if I continued to live under constant bombardment and street fighting.

Do I really want to be in hospital, my nerves jumping at loud noises, unable to sleep, overwhelmed by depression and guilt over the stress that my loved ones felt while I reported from the frontline? I had previously publicly committed to giving up war reporting many years ago.

I booked a flight, and returned home the next morning.

But I was soon in Lviv, the far west of Ukraine, reporting on the huge flow of refugees heading for western Europe. Several of my friends messaged me to ask why I was there, after I had publicly promised not to report war. I explained that I wasn't under fire in Lviv. It was too far west to allow the Russians.

It was a way to cover the story without putting anyone in danger. This is true. However, my internal struggle was not complete without Lviv. The war zones were not completely my home.

My BBC documentary on PTSD was the moment I realized how addictive war reporting can be in my own life. Yes, I was a journalist with deep curiosity about the world and how humans behave in extreme situations.

My passion is history and how it plays out today in conflicts. I believe that witness work is crucial to upholding human rights.

Over the past 30 years, I have covered many civil wars and conflicts, from Belfast during The Troubles to Rwandan genocide to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

There was also a negative aspect to my work choice. The nervous stress and strong compulsion to prove that I can survive war brought back the memories of growing up in a home with my dad's alcoholism. I proved that I wasn't a scared child in war zones. I could speak.

Since 2008 when I was officially diagnosed, I have tried a mixture of anti-depressant medication and therapy. CBT-Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was my therapy. This treatment examines the negative thoughts that are associated with trauma and attempts to replace them by positive ones.

Talking and medication combined have helped me to manage my symptoms and make life easier. It's been over 20 years since I last had a drink. I also stopped trying to treat the pain with alcohol for years.

Symptoms of PTSD

You can contact BBC Action Line if you are affected by any of these issues.

Fergal Keane – Living with PTSD will be broadcast on BBC2 Monday, 9 May at 21:00 BST as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.

It is believed that 3 out of 100 people in the UK have suffered from PTSD. Some people who are susceptible to developing symptoms include victims of domestic violence, rape, assault and domestic violence as well as survivors of accidents.

It is important to remember that every individual's mind and trauma experience requires a different approach. Mental health professionals who are skilled in treating individuals realize that they do not have to treat cases under pre-determined labels.

As part of my research for the BBC documentary Living With PTSD, I was able to explore the various treatments available to treat this disorder. These include medication, therapy, and even experiments with MDMA. Therapy can be more effective if it stimulates neurotransmitters to the brain. This can cause a feeling of empathy.

MDMA treatment is currently being tested in Britain, but it is not yet approved for widespread use. The use of video games like Tetris to ease stress is another option being considered. The benefits of the game have been demonstrated in trials conducted in the USA and Britain.

I was blessed to have the support of my employer and the love of my family and friends. These are vital weapons in my fight against the loneliness, lack of self-worth, and other symptoms of PTSD.

Listening to others with PTSD has been a huge help. I was able to visit the WAVE Trauma Centre in Belfast during the production of the film. They offer therapy and emotional support for victims of the Troubles-era violence. A study that was done over a decade ago found that Northern Ireland has the highest levels of PTSD. Over 50% of the people surveyed had experienced mental health problems related with the Troubles.

WAVE was a place where I was able to sit with a group which included a woman who was killed in an IRA bombing attack; a man shot at work by terrorists and Peter Heathwood who was paralysed from his waist in a Loyalist gun attack in 1979. As paramedics were transporting Peter to the ambulance, his father appeared on the scene. To keep Peter warm, the crew placed him in a bag. Peter's father saw the bag and assumed he was dead. He died instantly.

Anne, his wife, had answered the door when gunmen knocked. She never recovered from that trauma. Peter recalls that back then, there were no therapies. "I will never forget it, her eyes were like stones, as if they were statues. She was a difficult person to talk to. Anne started to drink heavily at age 51 and eventually died.

Peter regrets not having been able access to the WAVE talking therapy for his wife. "Unfortunately, it was not something I knew at the time. But I couldn't stress the importance of us talking and getting people with the same problems as we do to get them to come in and be talked to.

The group asked me if I could say a few words. I shared what I was feeling that moment with them. It was an honor to sit alongside them and share my feelings. They inspired me. I said that it was important to reach out to others who understand if there is any healing for people like myself. It was like being home with them, I told them. I felt hope.

Fergal Keane – Living with PTSD will be broadcast on BBC2 Monday, 9 May at 21:00 BST as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.

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