From War Correspondent to Workplace Mental Health Advocate: An Interview with Dean Yates

By Dufflyn Lammers 11/18/19

People often think of PTSD as being something that affects the nervous system, the brain, the body. I think it also affects the soul.

Dean Yates
I got messages from people all over the world and all walks of life who had experienced trauma just saying thanks for writing your story, thanks for putting this out there, thanks for telling it like it is. All images via Dean Yates unless otherwise specified.

After years of covering war, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for Reuters, journalist Dean Yates was diagnosed with PTSD and "Moral Injury." He sought healing not only with professionals and clergy, but by writing and sharing his story with the world. What happened next created a new role for him at Reuters and an opportunity to turn something tragic into something inspiring. 

After meeting at a conference in London, Dean Yates spoke with me from his home in Australia. 

What did it mean to be a bureau chief for Reuters in Bagdad at the time you were there? 

Yates: I was the bureau chief in Bagdad at the height of the Iraq war just before the surge of US troops into Iraq. This was George W. Bush’s last roll of the dice. It had plunged basically into civil war. That first six months of 2007 were the most violent period during the Iraq war. There were car bombs going off every day. That job entailed being responsible for coverage of that story but also being responsible for close to 100 men and women in the world’s most dangerous reporting zone. That made it an extremely stressful job. If I had half an idea of what it was going to be like, I’m not sure I would’ve gone there in retrospect because what ended up happening was way beyond anything I was prepared for. 

On the roof of the Reuters office in Baghdad

Over the years you reported on many tragic events including a nightclub massacre that killed 202 people in Bali in 2002 and a tsunami that killed 165,000 in Indonesias Aceh province in 2004 before you arrived in Bagdad. You’ve written in your stories about losing several colleagues in Iraq. Can you talk about what that was like? 

What it comes down to really is, you know, I felt morally responsible for the safety of my staff. I think that’s something a lot of people experience. Even though people say you did everything you could, you shouldn’t blame yourself, that wasn’t how I felt. It surfaced later into this moral injury. I just couldn’t live with myself because of what I saw as my own culpability and my failure. It was a spiritual care worker at the psych ward who helped guide me through a healing ceremony where I was able to pay my respects to Namir (22) and Saeed (40), the two men who were killed in an attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter on July 12, 2007 in Baghdad. This spiritual care worker was able to be at my side. No clinician could have done that. I really found I was able to make peace with myself after that ceremony.

What is Moral Injury? 

Actually, you can trace it back to the writings of Homer, the ancient Greek poet, and his epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” What it really means is if someone feels there is something that they did or didn’t do or that they witnessed that so deeply contravenes their moral compass or ethical values, they end up with a moral injury. People often think of PTSD as being something that affects the nervous system, the brain, the body. I think it also affects the soul. Think of a soldier who believed he was doing something good for the community but the Taliban, it turned out, didn’t like what he was doing and so the end result is that children die. You can’t give someone medication for that or give them a bit of evidence-based therapy.

That makes sense. I’ve heard a lot of people in recovery talk about how when they were using and drinking, they did things in service of their disease which were not in alignment with their own moral compass. 

You talk in one of your stories about taking paracetamol and codeine tablets to get to sleep and about drinking heavily as well as staying in bed, do you feel you were self-medicating your undiagnosed condition at that time? 

Oh yeah, totally. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever suffered from addiction. I went through bouts where I’d rely on alcohol or prescription medication but I was never in that years long cycle that some of my colleagues have been in. I had a little bit of an experience with it, but I got off the booze quite easily on my first psych ward admission.

Journalists have been known as boozers for as long as the profession has existed. I remember one weekend I was on duty and I was in the office asleep on the couch so hungover and the boss walked into the office with his wife and I remember him saying to his wife “let’s be quiet, I think Dean’s had a big night, we don’t want to wake him.” If that happened now, I’d be fired. But back then it was all part of the journalist culture. We went out and got roaring drunk. It was how we dealt with a lot of the traumatic stories. When we were in Baghdad we used to spend huge amounts of money on alcohol. Because we had to. Otherwise we would have gone crazy.

You’re lucky you were brave enough to seek out help and you did find the help you needed so you no longer had to self-medicate. We talk now in the addiction field about trauma being one of the main causes of addiction.

Who can be affected by PTSD? 

Oh anyone. All it takes is a severe enough traumatic event for someone to be at risk of developing PTSD. But the problem is that people associate PTSD with soldiers and increasingly with first responders. I’ve seen it across so many different sectors of the work force: nurses, doctors, and then in the civilian sphere—domestic violence, road accident victims. In Australia 70% of people will experience a traumatic event, according to Phoenix Australia (a center for post-traumatic mental health in Australia). In the U.S. the biggest group of people with PTSD are actually victims of rape. It doesn’t matter what brought you to the diagnosis. It doesn’t matter what your profession was. You all have flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression. We have these things in common that I thought wouldn’t have been possible and it makes me angry that so many of these people suffering with PTSD are silenced. It’s the same with addiction. 

Addiction is very much a disease of isolation. The whole idea of stigma contributes to the avoidance. It looks to me like avoidance has a role in the development of mental illness and PTSD in the first place. 

Yes, I had isolated myself incredibly. The only people who knew I had PTSD were my family and a few close friends. It was the same when I was in the psych ward. When I walked in that door it was terrifying. You know once you go through that door you can’t take that back. How’s that going to look on your resume? Because people think you’re crazy.

What do you think happened for you in the process of writing your story “The Road to Ward 17” even before you published it? 

The writing process is cathartic, it’s therapeutic, you learn a lot about yourself; it’s part of the recovery process. There’s so much research out there about the power of writing and sharing your story with others. 

When you wrote your story, how were your expectations different from what happened when you actually published it? 

I had initially thought that this could maybe be used as a blog for other colleagues, but then I thought this should actually be published. One of the things I thought about in the psych ward was that these folks who were in there, they were going through really rough times, and no one could tell their story. But I thought if I tell my story it’s a little like telling their story. 

The story ended up in the hands of our investigations editor in New York who is responsible for what’s called our special reports. We rarely publish first person account stories. But he really liked it. And when the story came out I wasn’t prepared for the response. I was more prepared to get negative responses. For people to be angry about me talking about the Apache attacks and Wikileaks. But I got messages from people all over the world and all walks of life who had experienced trauma just saying thanks for writing your story, thanks for putting this out there, thanks for telling it like it is. I’d only come out of the psych ward a couple months earlier. 

The video of the attack that killed your two colleagues, and the way only parts of it were released, created a certain perspective that skewed much of the response to it, even your own if I read you right. What have you learned about perspective in all this? 

Two weeks after Namir and Saeed had been killed, I was sitting in this office with these two generals and they started playing the tape and we had no idea that was coming. I saw the first— not even three minutes— of the tape and the tape was stopped at the moment the Apache fired on the men which included my staff. I walked out of that briefing with this one image in my head of our photographer peering around that corner. That image actually was burned into my brain for years and I just could not get that image out of my head to the point where I actually started seeing him as being responsible for what happened, whereas the order to fire had already been given before he even peered around the corner. And then when the (full) tape was released in 2010 I could not actually physically watch it. I knew what happened. I had read the transcripts by then but I hadn’t actually watched it. It was only when I wrote that story that I was able to watch that tape for the first time because I knew I had to get the timing of the events correct. So it did give me a different perspective. That tape to me shows the world what the Iraq war was really like.

Tributes to Namir and Saeed

Changing the Face of Mental Health at Work

How are you transforming what was a tragic event into something inspiring in your new role at Reuters? 

I wanted to try to create an environment where our staff felt comfortable putting their hands up and saying I’ve got mental illness or whatever and have management respond with compassion so that they could access the resources we have available. Because when you have an environment where people don’t feel comfortable talking about it, there’s not much you can do. 

We’ve been doing a series of internal blogs at Reuters. I wrote about my PTSD issues, and what it did is it kicked off other journalists writing about their own issues. The next person was a journalist in the Middle East who wrote about his struggle with bi-polar, another woman wrote about her depression, another guy wrote about his burnout. Some of these journalists have been overwhelmed with responses which also makes them feel like they’ve got meaning out of what they’ve done. They’ve got purpose out of what they’ve done. 

We’ve had about 30 now but not a single blog about addiction. So this colleague of mine wants to write about their addiction but wants to remain anonymous. I think that just shows how much stigma there still is.

Those blogs were very powerful in normalizing that conversation to the point where I think they’ve been as effective as anything we’ve done in getting that message out there that it’s okay to come forward, and that you’ll get the support you need. And it’s helpful for managers because if they’re reading about colleagues getting help, they’re thinking I want to be a good manager and make sure my people get the help they need,too. One of my areas of focus this year has been in training managers on how to look after the mental health of their team.

This is an important endeavor considering that, according to the Mental Health at Work 2019 Report BiTC, 62% of managers faced situations where they put the interests of their organizations above the interest of their colleagues. 

You’re not a psychologist or a psychiatrist but what you’re offering is peer support; you can explain to a manager how to talk to their staff who are struggling because you’ve been there. 

Right, I know the profession and I’ve got the lived experience of mental illness. I try to operate in the early intervention space. I am not an expert but I can be an advocate. I’ve got the street cred. No one can look at me and say you don’t know what you’re talking about. Because I do.

If the 12-step movement has taught us nothing else it’s taught us that peer support works. 

It crosses my mind that there’s something in this for the corporate world. How does mental health and addiction effect a company’s level of productivity?

I was able to function very highly for a long time but one of the symptoms of PTSD is avoidance. And so one of the great ways of avoiding your issues is through work and that was how I did it and I know a lot of people who have done the same thing. People want to contribute and they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. All the research shows that work is good for people’s mental health in general. But the point is: Don’t look after people’s mental health because it’s good for the business, look after people’s mental health because it’s the right thing to do. People with a mental health issue just want to be acknowledged. They want to be treated as if they had come into the office with their leg in a plaster (cast). You come into the office with your leg in plaster--it’s okay, we’ll sort this out; you’re supposed to be at that conference next week, we’ll send someone else; and okay, you’ve got to go to that doctor appointment, no problem. If you treat people like that, the numbers take care of themselves. 

Fair enough, though it is interesting to note that at the Mad World Summit in London, where we met, Sir Vince Cable was quoted as saying, “Mental illness costs the UK economy more than Brexit.” Which is a lot of money. And, according to the CDC, by combining medical and behavioral health care services, the United States could save $37.6 billion to $67.8 billion a year.

One last question. What would you say to someone out there who’s suffering in silence from depression or PTSD or trauma or substance use disorder or any kind of mental illness? 

You are not alone.

Dean Yates in Times Square, October 2019 (Helen Barrow/Evershine Productions)

The Road to Ward 17: My Battle with PTSD
Return to Ward 17: Making Peace with Lost Comrades

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Dufflyn Lammers (CPC, CAI, CRS) is a writer, an actor and a recovery coach. She is also the European Director of Services at Connections In Recovery, a consulting company that does treatment strategy and supportive services for addiction and mental health. In her international coaching practice she specializes in Codependency and Sex and Love Addiction. She has published in The L.A Times, Adelaide, Santa Fe Writers Project, Iowa Woman, and more. Her essay "Tinder in Paris" won a Silver Medal in the Love Story category for the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards, 2018. Lammers co-edited the spoken word anthology Chorus with Saul Williams, 2014 (Simon & Schuster). Lammers has appeared on RUSSELL SIMMONS DEF POETRY JAM (HBO), CRIMINAL MINDS (CBS), ENTOURAGE (HBO), and in BELLY from Artisan Films. Her one woman show DISCOVERED was a 2017 Duende Distinction Award nominee in its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Lammers has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department and with At-Risk Youth in schools and community centers to facilitate recovery in traumatized and undeserved populations. She presents workshops on resilience, identity and attachment at treatment centers and conferences internationally. Her workshops use improv games and creative writing to teach emotional intelligence, communication skills, and recovery skills through the power of play. Originally from Palo Alto, California, she lives in Paris, France. She is now at work on a memoir. Her personal website is: Find Dufflyn on Twitter and Instagram.