John Bird on PTSD: When we ignore trauma we light the touch paper

"If PTSD is left untreated, it can be a powder keg that destroys lives"

I do not have a morbid interest in prison or prisoners, but I do find myself gravitating towards them. Prisons, with their troubled human content, are places where an emergency in society is sorted out, patched up or put on ice for a while. But mostly the problem remains.

Hence the appalling reoffending rate among prisoners. Recidivism rates are up there in the 90 per cents with some prisons. And the recent stats on suicides and deaths within prison show us a state emergency response going off the rails.

Last week I went to a prison that is probably the oldest in the British Isles, and certainly the most distinguished in terms of its inmates. The Tower of London was the scene to launch a book called The Veterans’ Survival Guide. Written by Jimmy Johnson, it is published by Veterans in Prison. Jimmy Johnson is in prison for life. He was a serving soldier whose life and mind was wrecked by PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – and who remained untreated.

The death of two innocent men was the result. Once having left the army Jimmy murdered one man and was sentenced. After serving his time he was freed, and went out and murdered another man. He has been in prison now for almost 40 years.

There has been a shamefulness to how society and its governments have used ex-soldiers

The bringing of Jimmy’s book to light – his story, but also his thoughts and advice about combat-related PTSD – fell to General the Lord Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff. He orchestrated the launch in a room in the Tower of London where, in 1605, the Privy Council ‘interviewed’ Guy Fawkes after his discovery of the gunpowder under Parliament.

Jimmy’s story is of the untreated. Of the slow development of understanding, and the realisation that if PTSD is left, it can be a powder keg in one’s life. Hence the deaths. Hence the taking of Jimmy Johnson and burying him in a prison away from the public and from everyday life.

The book has been variously described as a magnum opus, and a lifeline by still-suffering veterans. It is full of advice to families and friends about spotting the signs, about actually coping with the problems thrown up.

Dare I suggest it is a practical guide that Vets, but also the rest of us, will find useful. Because it engages with how what you put into a person may well come out in a form that can be fatal. That if grief is not handled it may well blow up in your face.

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There has been a shamefulness to how society and its governments have used ex-soldiers. The early days of The Big Issue was overrun with hundreds of men who had been in the armed forces. You could not move in the early 1990s without encountering rough-sleeping ex-soldiers who had not made the transition back into civilian life successfully. And had fallen into need and dependency. Our early days looked remarkably military as a result. I shared this story at the launch of Jimmy’s book.

Now charities like Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and the Army Benevolent Fund, who along with Jim Davidson of Care After Combat paid for Jimmy’s book to be published, are working on the side of the victims of PTSD. And with it, reducing the risks that a lack of treatment throws up.

One of the most appalling crimes that took place in my youth was when the veteran soldier Harry Roberts killed three police officers brutally a decade after he left the army. The story rocked us in 1966, with Roberts hiding for weeks in Epping Forest, using his survival skills he had learned while involved in jungle warfare.

Unless the signs are followed up, and the support given, then tragedy will happen

Unless the signs are followed up, and the support given, then tragedy will happen. That is why Jimmy Johnson’s book and his story needs to be picked up and told. And why his advice, his understanding, tragically acquired, needs to be noted.

The Tower of London, the ultimate prison, seemed the correct setting for Jimmy Johnson’s book. It is a pity that such a book had to be written. But it is now published and we need to use it so that tragedy does not strike again.

Lord Dannatt has done us a great service in bringing this work to public life. Remedial help works wonders, and Jimmy’s story is a salutary lesson of what happens when it is not on offer.