31 Aug 2022

Susie Ferguson on personal toll of reporting the Iraq War: 'I couldn't cope with normal stress'

8:32 am on 31 August 2022

RNZ broadcaster Susie Ferguson has spoken candidly about the toll her six-year stint as a war correspondent took on her mental health in a new interview, saying it changed "every cell in [her] body".

RNZ Morning Report host and journalist Susie Ferguson wearing headphones and looking off to the right as she is interviewed by Reverend Frank Ritchie for the podcast re_covering

Susie Ferguson says she was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and moderate to severe depression after her years reporting from war zones. Photo: Josh Couch

Ferguson, who will next month step away from hosting Morning Report, revealed she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and moderate to severe depression while covering the Iraq War and other major conflicts and natural disasters.

Ferguson's revelations came in the latest episode of re_covering, a Media Chaplaincy New Zealand podcast produced for RNZ, featuring top Kiwi journalists discussing the stories that have shaped their careers, personally and professionally.

In the interview, Ferguson reflected on the personal impact being sent to Iraq in 2003 as a 25-year-old with the British Forces Broadcasting Service had on her.

"I don't think you are ever prepared until you're actually there. And when the shooting starts, then there you go - that's that's your preparation," she told re_covering host and media chaplain Rev Frank Ritchie.

It didn't take long for reporting from a war zone to put a burden on Ferguson's mental health. Within months, a colleague had noticed her behaviour was out of character - "a very nice way of saying I was self-destructing" - and urged her to get professional help.

Under the advice of a psychiatrist, she went through periods of working less in an effort to manage the psychological effects of being at the front-line of the conflict. But she couldn't shield herself from all the stresses of war, which she said altered "every cell in [her] body".

"It changed my stress response, and I think my stress response has never actually come back to the equilibrium that it had before," Ferguson explained.

"I became incredibly good at dealing with high-stress situations, like bombs dropping around you or whatever - I can keep talking, I can keep carrying on, I'm absolutely fine and completely in control.

"But then if I'm in my car, stuck in traffic and late for an appointment, I would start crying. I just couldn't cope with normal stress."

Ferguson said incidents like this became the norm in what were a "pretty rough" few years.

But combined with her waning capacity to handle normal life, her self-described 'superpower' of remaining calm in the face of calamity enabled her to continue reporting on scenes of destruction and desolation.

Interspersed with her coverage of the Iraq War, Ferguson was deployed in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and was on the ground in the days after the devastating Kashmir earthquake and the Boxing Day tsunami of 2005.

In these settings, she thrived - but whenever she returned home it was a different story.

"The Iraqs and Afghanistans and Sierra Leones of the world became not quite a happy place, because that sounds really screwed up, but they didn't stress me out," Ferguson said.

"Normal life stressed me out. It's when you come home and have to deal with the mundane that things start going wrong. That's what I couldn't handle.

"You lose your perspective on meaning and what matters. When you get so used to living life at 90km/h and you have to come back to 40km/h, everything feels pointless - what am I doing [and] why am I bothering?"

Ultimately, Ferguson would be diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and moderate to severe depression. But with the support of friends, colleagues and her "incredible partner" Lee, she had the help she needed to work through it and continue telling the stories that mattered.

Now more than a decade on from that time in her life, Ferguson uses what she learned as a war correspondent to encourage young journalists to seek help when covering traumatic news events.

"I remember talking to some of my colleagues, some quite young reporters who were chucked in to report on the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting, and saying to them, 'Just book the EAP counselling appointment'.

"'You maybe don't think you need it - you maybe don't need it, and I hope you don't - but you might just need it. So even if you go along and it feels completely pointless, just just go along and see'."

In the rest of the wide-ranging interview with re_covering, Ferguson talks with Ritchie about her decision to leave Morning Report after eight years in the job, and her New York Festivals Radio Awards-winning podcast The Unthinkable, about what it's like to lose a baby.

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