A journalist’s story of PTSD

Journalist Dean Yates followed stories of conflict in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for years in his job for Reuters, producing reporting around some of the region's most important events. Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can result from exposure to traumatic events. Yates, who wrote about his experience with PTSD for Reuters last month, joins Alison Stewart.

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    Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can afflict anyone who experiences or witnesses a shocking or dangerous event. It's particularly common among soldiers who've been in combat. And now, one journalist is sharing his story about how covering shocking and dangerous events led to his personal battle with PTSD.

    Dean Yates, a news editor for "Reuters", covered stories including the war in Iraq and a major terrorist attack and tsunami in Indonesia. Over time, his family began to notice a change in his personality. After denying he had a problem for years, he faced up to his issues and checked into a psychiatric hospital. Yates told his own story in the article, "The Road to Ward 17: My Battle with PTSD," and I spoke with him recently via Skype from his home on the Australian island of Tasmania.

    You covered major events all through the 2000ss. Which ones stand out to you and tell us a little bit more about what it was like being a reporter covering these major events in the world.


    You know, I think, Alison, for me, two really stand out. The first was the Boxing Day in Indonesia's Aceh province at the end of 2004. This was a natural catastrophe on a scale no one has ever seen before.

    In Indonesia's Aceh Province alone, 160,000 people were killed in the space of 20 minutes. I saw what I believe was thousands of bodies during the month I spent there. The destruction was just unimaginable, the suffering, the survivors — you can just imagine the shock that these people were in.

    And the other story for me was, obviously, the Iraq war. I was the "Reuters" bureau chief in Iraq from 2007-2008. And as you probably remember, 2007 was the year of the — the year of the surge. There were extra American troops sent to Iraq, and the violence in the first six months of 2007 was the worst in the entire Iraq war.

    And during that time, in July of 2007, very tragically, we lost three staff from the "Reuters" team, two killed by a U.S. Apache helicopter, and another a translator who was killed by gunmen in the streets of Baghdad, which was a very traumatic time for myself and for all our staff, and, of course, the families of those men.


    When did you know that this went past having an emotional reaction to something, even though we're all reporters and we're there to do analysis and report the facts, when did you know that those kind of more normal feelings were morphing into something else?


    Yes, Alison, to be honest, I didn't — I was in denial for years that I had a problem. I was in denial that I was exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, and my sensitivity to noise, my agitation, my anxiety, that these symptoms meant that I had a medical issue.

    It really wasn't until with my relationship with my wife at breaking point earlier this year that I agreed to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with PTSD, and it was that moment that I came to the acceptance that I had PTSD


    There was one incident in Iraq where colleagues of yours were killed, and you had to absorb it as a reporter, but that it may have been a trigger for you? You can tell us a little bit about that situation?


    As the bureau chief, I was responsible for everyone's safety, of course, and when — so, we had three staff killed in two days. The translator, it was just a random attack, a gunman on the streets. There was really not a lot I could do about that one. But the other two, they'd gone to just investigate reports that there had been a U.S. airstrike on buildings in east Baghdad and they found themselves in a group of men, some of whom appeared to be armed, and they were attacked by a U.S. apache helicopter and were killed, along with most of the men in that — in that group.

    And that was just — I can't explain how difficult that was. It was, obviously, a story at the time. And so, I was — I was having to write the story of their deaths and I was investigating how it happened, what happened. I was, obviously, dealing with the U.S. military because it was one of their helicopters.

    And then there was the grief within the Baghdad office. It was just enormous. There was so much anguish. And we had to — obviously, there were the funerals that had to be organized and it was — it was just a very — it was the most difficult period of my life, those few days, and then weeks in the aftermath of their deaths.

    And as time went on in Iraq, while I worked there, I tried to just bury these thoughts and emotions. And over time, I think I successfully compartmentalized that, but it eventually came back to haunt me and was really one of the major triggers, I think, for my PTSD


    Now, that attack was released by WikiLeaks. So, you had repeated exposure to it because you could see it happen, right?


    That's right, Alison. And I think for me, one of the things that I feel is a deep sense of guilt and shame because when that WikiLeaks — when WikiLeaks released that video in April 2010, I was actually on holiday in Tasmania at the time, where I live now, and I knew just about — more about that incident than anyone, and yet, I just was so — so frozen. I was so shocked to see that, to see that come out.

    It was an — it was in a newspaper. I picked up a newspaper, and there it was spread across a couple of pages. I just went into I guess shut down, lockdown. I just didn't want to have anything to do with it. I wanted others to deal with what was a major global story at the time because this was the first time really anyone had ever heard of WikiLeaks.

    And to this day, I just feel very guilty about that, because I could have added really important context, I think, as to what happened that day in 2007 and during the aftermath as well when we were pursuing U.S. military — we wanted that tape. We were filing Freedom of Information Requests to the U.S. military. They never gave us the tape.


    Knowing now what you know about PTSD and about your own health, were there times when the PTSD kept you from doing your job in the way you wanted to do your job?


    I think in the last couple years, certainly the last two or three years, there were times when I couldn't get out of bed. I'd just be so depressed, I'd lie in bed and I just — I barely had enough strength to send an email to my — to my boss at the time and say, "Look, I just can't– I can't get out of bed. I can't work today."

    And if I got really stressed, I would actually — it would feel like I was backing in my office in Iraq. I'd feel like I was transported back to that place. And when I got stressed, I would just react very badly. I'd bang my fists on the table. I'd shout.

    And, you know, I look back now and I think — I just wish I taken much more notice of those symptoms and been willing to accept that I had a problem.


    At one point, you tried to heal yourself. You would go on long walks on these long hikes, but you have since learned that that probably, the behavior you were exhibiting, really wasn't safe behavior. Tell us a little bit more about that.


    One of the things that my psychiatrist suggested to me was to do a little bit of bush walking, get out into nature. And, of course, Tasmania has some of the world's most incredible reign forests. So, I did. I took that advice, and I would go on some nice day hikes and I really enjoyed that.

    And then after a couple of months after being diagnosed, I started to do some multi-day walks, stayed down in the rainforest, stay in cabins, that sort of thing. And I really found peace in the rainforest. It was where my mind was still. I could breathe. I could just leave all of that emotional baggage at home and just look at the trees, walk these beautiful trails and feel really, really at peace.

    But with PTSD, one of the symptoms is risk-taking behavior. And it got to the point where I was planning multi-day hikes, up to a week, a week's walks, through some pretty rough terrain in Tasmania, on my own, in the middle of the winter. And my wife was worried about it. My father-in-law gave me a personal locater beacon to say, look — he said, "You really should consider this because it is quite dangerous."


    Being a journalist can be a very stressful position. Do you plan to stay in it as your career and what's next for you?


    I think we have an obligation as journalists to talk about mental health issue because I think we're uniquely equipped to communicate what it's like to live with mental illness. And I think as — I think it's just something — it's something I would like to really do. And in fact, I have a Facebook page — I've only just recently reactivated — but I'm posting the stories that other journalists have written about their mental illness on that page, because I just think we need to do what we can to raise awareness and break down the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.


    Dean Yates, a reporter with "Reuters", thank you so much for sharing your story and being so candid.


    My pleasure, Alison.

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