Trauma, like its sibling stress, is a much-overused word these days. People are “stressed” by a full inbox or “traumatised” because they left their phone in an Uber. Maybe we underplay the reality of trauma because we cannot look it in the face. Our streets are full of bundles of rags in sleeping bags, with people inside. We could ask them about the trauma of abuse or addiction, but we scuttle past. This is not a blame game – we all cope by shutting down.
But what if you can’t shut down? What if you can’t forget? What if the horrors you have seen can’t be put in a box marked “the past”, but are ever-present? Then you are in trouble. It was tremendously brave, even for a brave man such as the BBC reporter Fergal Keane, to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Keane had been dealing with this after decades of reporting from conflict zones all over the world. His colleague Jeremy Bowen has spoken of long period of depression and PTSD after his many years in the Middle East.
I have worked with reporters who could never manage a normal life and were always itching to get back to what most of us would call hell. War zones felt alive; family routine felt dead.
The first step in treating trauma is recognising it. I have met therapists brought in to do bereavement counselling for Grenfell survivors who said they couldn’t begin that work because these people were still in trauma. They could smell the smoke and see the flames. I once spoke to soldiers with the charity Combat Stress, and their agitation was so visible it was alarming. One man told me that, just behind me, he could see his friend on fire. Another would be having tea in a cafe with his family, a curtain would flicker and he would dive under the table. These men had served in the Falklands, Ireland and Iraq. What we once called shellshock we now see as PTSD.
There is minimal help for these people.
There is medication and there are various types of therapy, from cognitive processing (where you may begin to understand that what has happened is not your fault) to a kind of exposure treatment (which means learning not to avoid what triggers memories) to eye-movement desensitisation, which appears to be getting results, although no one knows why.
What all these treatments (except drugs) have in common is that patients need the presence of another person, to remember in a place of safety. This is as true for survivors of sexual abuse as it is for young lads returning from Afghanistan.
We need witnesses. As the great Judith Herman wrote: “The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” No wonder, then, that journalists may suffer – they see suffering most of us never want to see.
Writing this on Holocaust Memorial Day, I am minded to think of what happens when there are no more witnesses. There are so few Holocaust survivors left that it’s the job of the rest of us now. “Job” is the wrong word – it is our moral imperative.
We are beginning to understand how trauma crosses generations. Some find epigenetic reasons; others suggest that the children of survivors may have been asked to hold information that is too much to take on. Recovery from trauma requires a feeling of security, mourning and a connection back to normal life. The horrifying rise of antisemitism should make everyone think about why Jewish people may again feel afraid.
Everywhere now I see a belittling of therapy (a self-indulgent chat about feelings) and journalism (fake news), and I connect these two things. Why? Because the best people of these professions – and Keane is definitely one – are witnesses. Herman talks of the “potential power of any relationship of witnessing”. This is both the hardest and the most powerful thing we can do. But it is more necessary now than ever. We bear witness. We remember, we mourn, we reconnect.
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist