dean yates
Dean Yates (Image: Evershine Productions/Helen Barrow)

This is the fourth story in this series. Read the first here, the second here, and the third here.

Sally Sara (ABC): Sara covered suicide bombings, terrorist attacks and hospitals full to overflowing during her time in Afghanistan. She did most of it on her own, handling the filming, sound recording and interviewing — usually a job for three people.

Philip Williams (ABC): Williams says he was badly affected by the 2004 Beslan school siege in Russia, in which 300 people, mostly children, were brutally murdered by Chechen separatists. “I did have a form of PTSD, which my family recognised more than I did,” he wrote. “I was isolating myself and short-tempered and it took me a couple of years to get through it.”

Tim Palmer (ABC) Palmer left journalism several years ago after a career in which he won a number of Walkley awards. Palmer covered the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which killed more than 200,000 people, the bombing of Australia’s embassy in Jakarta, and conflict in the Middle East.

Mick Ware (Time, CNN) As a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ware served the equivalent of nine combat tours. He was embedded with US troops in Iraq and was kidnapped three times. He was struck by severe PTSD which put an end to his conflict reporting.

Peter Lloyd (ABC) Lloyd covered the Bali bombings, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He was later jailed, arrested in Singapore in possession of the drug ice. He cited the effects of PTSD as a reason.

Dean Yates (Reuters) Yates was bureau chief at Reuters’ Baghdad office during the US-led invasion. He lived and breathed the daily atrocities from inside the protected Green Zone and was responsible for assigning local staff to cover dangerous situations. Yates was hit by serious PTSD in the years after his posting and had three periods of psychiatric treatment in a specialist psychiatric ward, Ward 17, in Melbourne.

Reporter YZ (The Age) A former Age crime and courts reporter won $180,000 in damages from the newspaper in a world-first court settlement after suffering psychological injuries from covering some of Victoria’s most serious and gruesome crimes. A Victorian County Court found that The Age had failed in its duty of care for the journalist as she was repeatedly exposed to trauma and increasingly showed signs of psychological injury.

Photographer AZ (The Age) In 2012 a former Age photographer accused the newspaper of failing to provide a safe workplace and breaching its duty of care. The Walkley award-winning photojournalist had “mentally unravelled” after she covered the first anniversary of the 2002 Bali bombings, according to the ABC.

Common threads

There are common threads for nearly all these journalists: witnessing death and suffering on a large scale; often working in isolation; filing under pressure of constant deadlines with little chance to decompress.

The case of Ben Williamson, though, is different from most of those diagnosed with PTSD. The 60 Minutes cameraman was held by Lebanese security services and physically and mentally tortured. This was in addition to other terrifying prior incidents, including being stopped and held by armed militias in Ukraine, and witnessing death on a large scale in the Philippines and Africa. Williamson also covered the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre in the United States and the Boston terrorist bombings.

Up until the incident in Lebanon, he says, he was not offered counselling by Nine.

Dean Yates is one of the few Australian journalists to speak openly about his post-traumatic stress disorder and what he calls the “moral injury” that happens when employers create legal hurdles for once-loyal employees who make a PTSD claim.

“Never have journalists faced so many risks to their mental health,” he said, citing social media abuse, digital overload, burnout, an unrelenting news cycle, precarious job security, identifying with the trauma they cover (such as in the case of the Black Lives Matters movement), working with distressing imagery, and governments that treat media as the enemy.

“News organisations know this but are failing to put in place training programs and policies to protect the mental health of staff and freelancers,” he told Inq.

Yates has spoken to hundreds of journalists from around the world since Reuters published a story he wrote in late 2016 called “The Road To Ward 17: A Reporter’s Battle With PTSD“.

He was also head of mental health and well-being strategy at Reuters for three years until January 2020. Yates left Reuters after 26 years because of widespread resistance he says he faced from management in trying to make the mental health of journalists at the world’s largest news provider a top priority and the stress that caused him.

“The media industry is failing abysmally,” he said. “Their focus on mental health is such a low priority. News organisations see it as a cost issue, rather than a human issue.”

Yates expects to finish a memoir in the coming months about the journey he and his family have been on since he was diagnosed with PTSD five years ago.

If you are troubled by issues raised in our coverage you may care to contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. The Dart Centre has specialist assistance for media workers with PTSD.

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