WHATS NEW - Fergal Keane - the truth about PTSD

Fergal Keane's Step Down Highlights a Fundamental Truth about PTSD

by Paul Greeves

Fergal Keane, the BBC’s Africa Editor is stepping down from his role in order to aid his recovery from PTSD. Decades of reporting from conflict zones including the Rwandan Genocide, have left him having to deal with the psychological effects of witnessing harrowing scenes and terrible suffering, and with the continual stress of living and working in dangerous and arduous circumstances for extended periods.

Colleagues have praised his bravery, as a reporter, and for speaking out about his condition. And rightly so. Even in these more accepting times there’s still a stigma to admitting you need a break while colleagues continue. It shouldn’t be so. As fellow veteran war reporter, Jeremy Bowen, noted on the Today programme last week, ‘you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t leave some kind of a mark’.

As the BBC’s Head of High Risk for a number of years, I knew many journalists affected by trauma. Not always the result of any single or repeated traumatic event, but often due to the incessant exposure to a heightened, but not acute level of danger over long periods.

Like most news organisations in my experience, the BBC went to great lengths to try and manage the impact of reporting traumatic stories and to support those who had been affected.

Our understanding of the condition and the how to mitigate the effects are now well developed. Journalists attending hostile environment courses like those we run for the BBC and others at First Option, receive extensive training on the causes, symptoms and how to cope with trauma.

But it is more difficult for organisations (and individual journalists) to deal with the fundamental truth about traumatic stress, well known for decades and illustrated by Fergal’s case - at some point you have to take a break.

Writing in 1945 in his book ‘The Anatomy of Courage’ Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor, identified ‘courage’, or what we would perhaps now call ‘resilience’, as a finite resource: “Courage is will-power, whereof no man has an unlimited stock…”

Drawing on his research as a young medical officer in the trenches of WW1, he described how the repeated and continual exposure, not only to intermittent horrors and terror, but to the constant and insidious presence of constant danger and harsh conditions, depleted any individual’s stock of resolve over time. And how, more than any other factor, respite from those things – ‘rest and recuperation’ – was the only sure way to avoid individuals and whole units becoming wholly ineffective.

Understandably, news organisations, and journalists themselves, find that principle harder to apply. There’s always another story to be covered and another assignment to be sent on. The needs of the output and the commitment of the reporters themselves will tend to trump the need for sufficient, recuperative time out.

But at the very least a way needs to be found (along with other stress management methods) to organise deployments and postings so that traumatic stress doesn’t become a debilitating disorder.

Fergal Keane will continue to report for the BBC on other stories. We thank him for his brave and humane coverage of conflict over many years. We wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to his future reporting.

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