Veteran war correspondent Fergal Keane reveals the toll of the conflict

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BBC war correspondent Fergal Keane has revealed in a deeply personal documentary how death and the looming threat of violence during The Troubles first affected his mental well-being.

In this moving 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 retiring from conflict reporting.

It also studies the latest scientific thinking on PTSD and its treatment.

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

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

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

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

Intimate details about Mr. Keane’s life are shared throughout the program.

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

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

He remembers being diagnosed with PTSD 13 years ago and feeling ‘too tired to be ashamed’ after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

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

He was keen to document the war in Ukraine 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 is the type of person who receives literature after a therapy session but does not read it because he wants to escape PTSD.

“I wanted to keep him at bay. Why? Because I wanted to keep doing what I was doing. I wanted to continue waging war,” he says.

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

For him, PTSD presents itself as contractions, 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 everyday life, it’s as common as sitting in a room where someone is trying to do the dishes and flinches and says, ‘Can’t you hear how loud that is?’ and they look at you, ‘no,’ because no one hears it as loud as me in my head,” he says.

People love him and want to take care of him, but when he gets wrapped up in 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’s a place he associates with the most “chaotic and tense” week of the conflict.

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

It made Keane realize “how close you could live to the brink” and that, living in Belfast, he couldn’t help but absorb that trauma.

He said, “But nothing anyone could have said to me at that time would have stopped me.

“If they had come and said, ‘You know, in 30 years, mate, you’re going to be hospitalized with a nervous breakdown due to trauma,’ I wouldn’t have believed them.

“You have to put yourself in my head, in your twenties, and he was someone who suddenly felt this sense of purpose about what he was doing.

“Because I think we all want to be told that we are worth it, that what we do is worth it.

“But I wanted it more than most. And it is of course the trauma of not having had it as a child.

Back in Belfast, Fergal visits the WAVE Trauma Center where he hears from trauma specialists and Troubles victims, including Cathy McCann, who suffers from PTSD.

In 1990 a 1000 pound IRA bomb was planted under a road and exploded.

Three police officers and a nun were killed, Mrs 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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