How do documentary filmmakers tackle issues like PTSD and shell shock?

Dan Snow's BBC film WW1's Secret Shame: Shell Shock exposes war's devastating impact on mental health, grappling with battle trauma and suicide

Dan Snow and Sean Jones (BBC)

During Sean Jones’ second tour of Afghanistan in 2008, an incident occurred that continues to affect him to this day.

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Jones, then a colour sergeant in the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, witnessed a landmine explode, engulfing an army truck in flames. Jones’ friend was trapped inside. The vehicle was on a sharp incline, and the man “sat there on fire with his foot on the brake”. Jones discusses the event in vivid detail to presenter Dan Snow in BBC2’s upcoming documentary WW1’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock, which explores the mental trauma inflicted in battle over the past 100 years, starting with the first and second world wars, up until the Falklands and Afghanistan.

Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Jones expresses his hope that the film “will help … keep mental health and PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] in the public eye”. On his decision to participate in the documentary, he says: “I felt that I wouldn’t be the only person feeling like I did [and still] do.”

Jones, later diagnosed with PTSD after the incident in Afghanistan, still suffers from recurrent nightmares and suicidal thoughts. “After the documentary [filming], I was OK for a short period, but in December 2017 I nearly ended my life again,” he says. “Eventually I ended up in a psychiatric unit for a number of weeks, which was the lowest that I have ever been.” He’s since found a new therapist, who he says “has helped [him] so much”.

“It’s the talking that helps and continues to help me,” he adds. “I hope the documentary helps people realise that it’s OK to not be OK.”

In the film, war historian Snow delves into medical archive records that describe first-hand the symptoms of shell shock, before interviewing several veterans who fought in major conflicts — WWII, Falklands, and Afghanistan — and whose battle experiences all had a devastating impact on their mental health.

World War I's Secret Shame: Shell Shock, BBC Pictures
Soldier from World War I

So how did the BBC set about examining such a sensitive topic? And how did they find PTSD sufferers willing to talk on camera about their experiences?

It was director Elizabeth Dobson who convinced Jones to take part, talking through the film’s aims and later visiting him in person. “[That] just sealed it for me,” Jones says. “She was so understanding… the human touch is what is needed when dealing with people with mental health issues. At the time, I was still so heavily involved with the illness itself that, if it hadn’t been for Elizabeth and her team making me feel at ease, I don’t think that I could have been involved.”

The documentary follows a timeline from WWI shell shock — a phenomena many at the time dismissed as cowardice — to Jones’ story, and the armed services’ modern day attitudes towards treating PTSD.

On sourcing potential interviewees, filmmaker Dobson told RadioTimes.com: “We were looking for the best stories that could tell you the impact of PTSD in recent conflicts, so it’s really about which was the powerful story.

“There are a lot of people who have PTSD who do not feel well enough to speak. So you have to look around for people who are really, really comfortable [with] speak[ing].”

Dan Snow filming WW1's Secret Shame: Shell Shocked (BBC)
Dan Snow filming WW1’s Secret Shame: Shell Shocked (BBC)

However, some of the interviewees still found it difficult discussing their battle experiences and trauma. “Sean Jones, whose PTSD is relatively recent, he found it probably the most difficult of all because you can see in the film [it’s] extremely raw for him,” Dobson explains. “But he’s an extraordinary person… I think his wish to try and save someone else from being in the position he’s in overrides the anxiety he might feel about giving an interview.”

Dobson refers to another interviewee, Dave Brown, a Falklands veteran, who experienced PTSD and survivor’s guilt after the conflict ended.

“He [Brown] is a very confident speaker,” Dobson says, “but of course, every time he speaks about it [his battle experiences], you’ll see on camera [that] he goes back to that experience, to that trauma; but again he feels very, very strongly that the care of veterans really needs to improve”.

The film argues that the armed forces have “failed generations of veterans” by not providing proper follow-up care, particularly for those who are only diagnosed with PTSD after they’ve left active service.

Asked what would have happened if he hadn’t got treatment, Brown said on camera: “I’d have probably drunk myself to death, or I’d have ended up [doing] life in prison for killing someone.”

On leaving the armed forces, he says: “You just bottle it all and you literally just drink.”

“We are violent men… When you’re leaving [the armed forces] they don’t actually tell you how to turn that light switch off,” he adds.

While filming the documentary, it became clear to both Dobson and Snow that the lessons learnt during the First and Second World Wars about mental trauma have had to be re-learned later by the armed forces.

“Dave was told, ‘just go home, get drunk and forget about it’,” Dobson says. “So the lessons are forgotten.”

Programme Name: WW1's Secret Shame: Shell Shocked - TX: 12/11/2018 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: British World War 1 soldiers in a front Line trench. 1915-18. - (C) Shutterstock - Photographer: Unknown

The film also offers an insight into the different ways battle trauma has manifested itself over the years; for example, one theory hypothesises that the modern-day activity of going to the cinema has led to a trend in more veterans experiencing flashbacks after battle trauma.

“[PTSD] might manifest itself in different ways, in different periods of time, and yes there are different ways for the military to react,” Dobson says, “but in the end, what we’re trying to say is that there is a very big price for going to war, and it extends beyond the battle. And it’s quite easy for that to be forgotten.”

Jones’ interview took place in his own house, which he found helpful: “We were just chatting in my own home…[the interview] potentially would have been a different conversation in an alien environment”.

On opening up about his past experiences to Dobson and Snow, Jones tells RadioTimes.com: “At times it was [difficult], but it comes down to how I was feeling at the time… Talking about suicide during the interview was difficult for me, but at the same time may not have been discussed if I wasn’t feeling positive. I knew I wanted to let people out there know that we can, and we should, talk about these issues.”

Jones, who was only formally diagnosed with PTSD last year, wants to ensure that the public “keep[s] talking about taboo topics”.

“My past experiences are happening all too often to many serving soldiers and veterans at the moment, and I hope that changes,” he says.

The personal stories of interviewees like Jones and Brown stuck in Dobson’s mind long after filming ended. “All the personal stories are so appalling… they do stay with you forever,” she says.

Asked what she hopes viewers’ reaction to the film will be, Dobson says: “I just hope that people will be more aware of how much the battle continues for many, many servicemen — long after they’ve come home from war.”

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WW1’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock airs at 9pm on BBC2 on Monday 12th November