Portrait of PTSD: veteran mental health in the media

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Recent BBC drama Bodyguard has been praised for its accurate portrayal of combat-related PTSD. Tom McDonald spoke to the experts and those living with the condition to gauge its impact.

Depictions of combat-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in media have been around for some time. The most common symptom shown within the media is severe flashbacks to active combat, but this is not the reality for thousands of people across the UK, and worldwide, living with PTSD.

Dr Elaine Johnson – joint head of psychological therapies with the veteran’s charity Combat Stress – details that there are a range of symptoms, including hyper-vigilance, emotional numbing and avoidance that we perhaps don’t see represented as often in media.

REPRESENTATION

The recent hit BBC drama Bodyguard, however, has drawn considerable praise for doing precisely that. Main character David Budd, an Afghanistan veteran, is seen to struggle with the effects of combat-related PTSD over the course of the fast paced six-part series. Drawing in over six million viewers for its first episode, the show subtly and effectively showcased symptoms of PTSD other than flashbacks.

“We do not see David experiencing flashbacks in the Bodyguard, but see glimpses of his symptoms and particularly how these are experienced by others.” says Dr Johnson. “In our experience, many veterans continue to function, often in high stress roles, for some years after traumatic events and are able to block symptoms, for example, by using alcohol.”

Indeed, throughout the show, David is seen to throw himself fully into the task which drives the plot. This is seen as something of a coping mechanism, causing David to continually put off seeking help for PTSD, despite loved ones encouraging him to get assistance.

Credit: BBC Images

AWARENESS

John, a veteran of the Falklands War living with PTSD, agrees that the depiction checked out completely with his experiences. John was on the bridge of the HMS Coventry when she was sank by three 1000lb Argentinian bombs and was diagnosed with PTSD in 2015 after a long period without confronting his symptoms. He now works spreading awareness of the condition, often working with veteran charity SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity.

“I never said to myself that I had PTSD. This was twenty-odd years ago and it just wasn’t brought up. After leaving the navy I went into commercial diving. This was very like the military in certain ways. There was a certain sense of danger and I was away from home,” recalls John. “When I got home, that’s really when everything went downhill.”

Reaching out for support can be the hardest first step to make, but it is a step vital for improved mental health. The conclusion of the Bodyguard saw the protagonist eventually going for guidance, and breaking down with a counsellor. “I was actually crying at that bit,” explains John. “You can relate to the character.”

DIAGNOSIS

Difficulty adjusting to civilian life is a common feeling for veterans transitioning back into civvy street. Resettlement can be a challenge, further fuelling PTSD or mental illness, and reaching out can be the last possibility for many men and women. Bodyguard’s depiction of the long, deferred process towards finally seeking help is also consistent with Dr Johnson’s experience treating the condition.

“During the programme we see others tell David that he needs help, for example, the dramatic scene where he attacks the home office minister when woken from sleep. His ex-partner also tells him he needs help,” says Dr Johnson. “This is not unusual in our experience. Veterans often take many years to seek help for PTSD, and may only come forward when there is a crisis such as a relationship breakdown.”

And the data on the issue reveals a fairly pressing problem, as Dr Johnson explains: “On average it takes veterans 13 years to come forward for help, although we are seeing those from more recent conflicts come forward for help sooner. This is probably due to increased awareness and efforts to reduce stigma in the military.”

NEXT STEPS

According to John, Bodyguard isn’t perfect – he considers the fast turnaround between David first seeking help and being seen to blissfully enjoy a day out with his family as something of a misrepresentation of the true length of the recovery process – but the show nevertheless seems to have went some way to increasing public awareness of combat-related PTSD, encouraging veterans to seek help sooner.

Charities like SSAFA, Combat Stress and Forward Assist rely heavily on charitable funding, and with new data from Kings College London showing that rates of combat-related PTSD in veterans are even higher than previously reported, the work that they do only becomes more vital.

For John, and countless others like him, the importance of getting the word out there about combat-related PTSD is a matter of life and death. Shows like Bodyguard may be first and foremost entertainment, but getting things right when showing PTSD onscreen could be helping a lot.

“We have continued to see increased demand for PTSD treatment over the last five years. If the TV programme helps one veteran pick up the phone to our helpline to get the help they need, then it will have done a great job,” concludes Dr Johnson.

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