The road to recovery

Former foreign correspondent Dean Yates has shared his post-traumatic stress disorder journey. Picture: Phillip Biggs

Former foreign correspondent Dean Yates has shared his post-traumatic stress disorder journey. Picture: Phillip Biggs

Whilst covering natural disasters and catastrophes in war-zones as a foreign correspondent, Dean Yates thought his stoic state was beneficial.

Now, he recognises his detachment for its true purpose.

A coping mechanism.

Yates, of Evandale, was a successful journalist abroad for two decades.

He felt an urge to "witness history" while backpacking in early 1990.

He couldn't find a job in Sydney without journalism qualifications.

Yates followed his new-found calling to Indonesia, where he acquired a job at an English language publication. 

Yates joined international media organisation Reuters in 1993, and went on to report on danger and disaster.

He lived in a multitude of locations abroad including Singapore, Iraq and Indonesia. Some times were peaceful, some were dangerous. 

Yates covered conflict in the Middle East and witnessed the massive destruction of the Boxing Day Tsunami. 

He “never, ever” considered the long-term ramifications of the horrific sights he absorbed so often.

"The day I left Iraq, at the end of 2008, and I promised my family that I'd never go to a war zone or a natural disaster zone again, it still didn't enter my head that I should be thinking about my own mental health,” Yates recalled.

But certain sights stuck in Yates’s mind.

Repressed memories and fragments of tragedy had been haunting Yates, who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.

After leaving Iraq, Yates was the organisation’s top news editor for Asia, a role he described as “really high pressured”. 

"There was no time for these symptoms to emerge, even though my wife had already seen some of the signs,” Yates said. 

He moved to Tasmania with his family in early 2013, and said it was the unfamiliar peace and quiet which led to an influx of previously suppressed thoughts. Moving to Tasmania was a fresh start and “a tree change” for his family. 

“But what it did is it slowed my mind down, so I started to relax more, and my mind was less frantic,” he said.  

“What I didn't realise is you can only be detached for so long, it eventually caught up with me, and it caught up with me with a vengeance.”

PTSD symptoms were encompassing Yates, and he said flashbacks became “pretty bad”. Inerasable memories included an image of a badly burnt young girl after the tsunami, lying on a stretcher, looking at him. 

“Sometimes I'd be in my office working, and if I got stressed, I would find myself actually transported back to Baghdad," he said. 

"I'd slam my fists on the table, I'd shout at the walls."

Usually outgoing and social, the 48-year-old became “numb” to his family. 

"My sensitivity towards loud noise got really bad, to the point where I would react very badly if one of the kids accidentally slammed the door, my wife couldn't even vacuum," Yates said. 

While working for Reuters from home in 2015, there were days he couldn’t get out of bed. 

“It was an effort just to lift my phone to email my boss to say I couldn't work that day,” he said. 

His wife advising him to get help led to seeing a psychiatrist in Hobart.

Yates was diagnosed with PTSD during his first session in March this year.

The psychiatrist suggested Yates begin bushwalking, which he soon became passionate about. 

“But the problem was, I couldn't cope when I came back from the bush, so the family would be walking around on eggshells when I'd come back,” Yates said.

The situation reached breaking point around the anniversary of the deaths of two of Yates’s staff from Iraq. 

They were killed on the streets of Baghdad in an attack, and Yates dwelt on how he could have protected his staff and dealt with the aftermath. 

I believe in this concept called post-traumatic growth, which is essentially the idea that through suffering, you can find more meaning in life. - Dean Yates

 "With everything else that was going on inside my head, I just plummeted downwards,” Yates said. 

He spent five weeks in intensive treatment in Melbourne in a ward reserved for people living with PTSD.

Yates said he entered the ward in a “crisis state of mind” in August, but since treatment, his mental health has improved steadily. 

"Flashbacks are less [frequent], I take medication to reduce nightmares or to make it harder for me to remember the nightmares ... but every couple of weeks one slips through," he said. 

Yates is optimistic about recovery. 

"I believe in this concept called post-traumatic growth, which is essentially the idea that through suffering, you can find more meaning in life," Yates said.

He believes raising awareness will give him “real meaning and purpose”. Yates said while stigma is being “chipped away at”, there is work to be done destigmatising the broad range of complex mental illnesses. 

"I think employers have to get on board with this and be very understanding [about mental illness]," Yates said. 

He penned a poignant piece on PTSD for Reuters, and hopes to work on follow-up articles. He plans to work in PTSD advocacy in the future. 

If you need help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop