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Fortune: favours the brave – but at what price?

What happens when you are flung into the spotlight, a hero in the minds of many, yet everything behind the scenes just isn’t quite as it should be?

It is important to recognise the issues, influenced by stress and trauma, which impact on the mental health of individuals.

It is likely that one of two people will experience some serious stress at some point in their lives. Feelings of being overwhelmed by common stresses or unresolved grievous memories would haunt and distract them from their daily tasks.

This is a reality for the astonishing individuals leading this discussion today.

Being the focus of the media and the center of admiration for the public can be seen by many as a privilege. But for those in the spotlight, suffering in silence, this unrelenting attention can be more of a curse than a gift.

“I felt pretty ashamed of myself,” confessed John Cantwell, who was the Australian commander in Afghanistan during 2010. He has written a book, Exit Wounds, about his experience.

“I was in my thirties, I had been in the army for almost fifteen years and I had seen a relatively short, clean, war and we won.”

Cantwell discusses his experiences of encountering new and bizarre emotions, ghastly nightmares, horrible flashbacks and bouts of anxiety after his return to civilian life following a lifetime in combat.

“It was a pretty frightening time,” he confessed,  “I felt a real phony.”

The emergence of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would change his life forever.

“I was a broken toy.”

Profound depression followed Matthew Mitcham after his wildly successful Olympic diving career, and it was a battle he found he had to his hide. There was no one he felt he could confide in about his destructive mental health.

For Mitcham, a self-prescribed treatment of excessive drug and alcohol consumption was the only way he could supress the stirrings of his mind, resulting in the creation of Twists and Turns.

Now, Mitcham said he makes an effort to stress to people the importance of “speaking out as a first resort rather than a last resort”.

It’s essential to recognise that people seriously underestimate the severity and power of mental afflictions in comparison to those of a physical nature, as it is not a tangible thing, you cannot see it or touch it as you can with a broken leg or an abrasion.

There is an ongoing stigma in today’s society that the typical ‘Alpha Male’ is unable to display any weakness, and that showing emotion is never an option.

Richard de Crespigny knows the pressures of the world stage in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.

He was the world-renowned pilot responsible for the miraculous landing of the ill-fated flight QF32, and he wrote about his journey in his novel, also called QF32.

De Crespigney said that “crying is not in our lexicon” and that when it comes to post-traumatic stress: “no one’s trained for it, so for the people who have stress, understand that its real, be compassionate and just look after them, because they need help.”

It was inspiring to see that Cantwell speak so positively of the growing education around PTSD through his actions lobbying in Canberra, noting that the attitudes towards the disorder has “changed in a very, very positive way, at last”.

Ashley Colhoun is a creative writing student at Southern Cross University.

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1 Comment

  1. Me again says

    I spoke to John Cantwell after his talks. ‘Coming out’ and talking about PTSD and depression as an ex Army guy (Major General!) may be the bravest act of his life and he will probably save more lives than the ones he (misguidedly in my view) takes responsibility for losing. I have lost a sister to suicide less than a month ago – if she had been more open about her mental health struggles, less crippled with shame – she might still be alive.

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