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Veteran BBC war correspondent Fergal Keane reveals toll taken by conflict

BBC’s Fergal Keane says his mental health issues began when he covered the Troubles

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From the front line: Fergal Keane reports from Ukraine in 2016. Credit: BBC/State of Grace Films

From the front line: Fergal Keane reports from Ukraine in 2016. Credit: BBC/State of Grace Films

BBC/State of Grace Films

From the front line: Fergal Keane reports from Ukraine in 2016. Credit: BBC/State of Grace Films

BBC war correspondent Fergal Keane has laid bare in a deeply personal documentary how death and the looming threat of violence during the Troubles first affected his mental wellbeing

In this emotional film, Fergal Keane: Living with PTSD, he reveals the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on himself, and others like him.

Fergal explores how PTSD led him to consider withdrawing from conflict reporting.

He also investigates the latest scientific thinking behind PTSD and its treatment.

As a BBC Special Correspondent, Mr Keane has covered conflict and brutality for more than 30 years.

From Kigali and Baghdad to Belfast, he was always at the heart of the story and became a trusted BBC face, known for reporting with humanity and extraordinary empathy.

But off screen, Fergal struggled to keep another story from overwhelming him. He was suffering from an acute form of PTSD.

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In January 2020, Fergal went public with his diagnosis of PTSD.

Intimate details of Mr Keane’s life are shared throughout the programme.

Examining his childhood, Fergal speaks of “the trauma of loving an alcoholic dad” where there was a constant atmosphere of “threat and fear”.

The award-winning journalist broaches his own experiences with alcoholism as a form of “self-medication” at the height of his career, as well as his journey to sobriety.

He recalls receiving his PTSD diagnosis 13 years ago and feeling “too tired to be ashamed” after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

The programme starts with Fergal reflecting on the addictive part of his personality that wants to witness history.

He was keen to document the Ukraine war but made a promise to himself and the people he loves: “No more wars.”

The viewer is taken back nine months where Keane explains that he’s the sort of person given literature after a therapy session but doesn’t read it because he wants to escape PTSD.

“I wanted to keep it at arm’s length. Why? Because I wanted to keep doing what I was doing. I wanted to keep going to the wars,” he says.

Throughout the years he has seen the best of humanity and the worst, but “too often the worst”.

For him, PTSD presents itself as twitching, nightmares and flashbacks — “it’s a place of extreme fear”.

“Fear of nightmares, where I wake up and I’m under a pile of bodies, or in my dreams I see animals devouring human corpses.

“In daily life it’s as mundane as sitting in a room where someone is trying to do the dishes and flinching, saying, ‘Can’t you hear how loud that is?’ and them looking at you, ‘no’, because nobody hears it as loud as I do in my head,” he says.

People love him and want to take care of him but when he’s absorbed by PTSD, he shuts them out, viewers are told.

He first became addicted to the adrenaline of war coverage in Northern Ireland.

The documentary takes him to Milltown Cemetery where many nationalists and republicans killed during the Troubles are buried.

It is a place he associates with the most “chaotic and tense” week of the conflict.

Scenes are re-played of an ambush by UDA member Michael Stone when he killed three people in a grenade and gun attack at an IRA funeral.

It brought home to Keane “how close you could live to the edge” and that living in Belfast he couldn’t help but absorb that trauma.

He says: “But nothing anybody could have said to me at that time would’ve stopped me.

"Had they come along and said, ‘You know, in 30 year’s time mate, you’re going to be going into hospital with a mental breakdown from trauma’, I wouldn’t have believed them.

“You have to put yourself into my head, in my 20s, and that was somebody who suddenly felt this sense of purpose about what he was doing.

“Because I think we all want to be told that we’re worthwhile, that what we do is worthwhile.

“But I wanted it more than most. And that’s the trauma of course of not having it as a child.”

Returning to Belfast, Fergal visits the WAVE Trauma Centre where he hears from trauma specialists and Troubles’ victims, including Cathy McCann, who suffer from PTSD.

In 1990 a 1,000lb IRA bomb was placed under a road and detonated.

Three policemen and a nun were killed, Ms McCann was a passenger with the nun.

Fergal Keane: Living with PTSD is a co-commission for BBC Two and BBC Northern Ireland made by State Of Grace Films


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