Building Trust In A Melbourne Mental Ward

ABC Australia's News 24 Presenter/Reporter Kumi Taguchi took a break from the quick turnaround of TV news to spend two weeks at a Melbourne repatriation hospital to work on a feature story about PTSD experienced by returned soldiers, The Battle After The War. In this piece, Taguchi writes about becoming comfortable, gaining trust, and her decision to write exclusively for online.

This piece was originally published on ABC News' Back Story. The interactive feature, The Battle After the War, appeared on the ABC News site here.

I turned up to the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital on a wintry day in July 2014, but in fact my journey there began over a year before. That was when my interest in the place was sparked after reading a small newspaper article about the hospital. I had sent dozens of emails to people there and had met senior people in person, expressing my desire to do a fly-on-the-wall piece about returned soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The progress was great and I got to the point of gaining approval to spend time in the hospital - but at that time, we didn’t really have the right outlet, so I let it lie. Then in April this year, the ABC announced it was going to support Mental Health Week in a big way. I was asked to be an ambassador and it was then that an opportunity came up to re-pitch my story. I made a few calls to Melbourne and was reassured that the invitation was still open to spend time in the hospital. A few weeks and countless emails later, we locked in dates for me to go.

I was assigned a desk in an office in the Clinical Administration Wing. My office mates were two psychologists who specialise in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD - Carolyn and Ben. Carolyn works with returned soldiers and Ben works with the police (this illness affects firefighters, police, paramedics and, as we know, journalists, among many others). It made a huge difference that a series of emails had been sent to staff in the facility the week before, telling them to be open to my presence. 

And each day, I waited for the story to unfold. It was a fine balance between pushing for ‘talent’ and being patient. I spent a lot of time speaking to psychologists and the best insights often came over informal cups of tea or sharing lunch. The staff were so helpful and I was amazed at how much freedom I had to roam the corridors and become part of the furniture. No areas were off limits. The only limitations were my own sense of comfort and those of the patients and staff. I was acutely aware I was in a building where people are at their most vulnerable. 

The most challenging part of the story for me was that there wasn’t an immediate story. We are trained to respond to events and often a story, like bushfires or conflict, will set the narrative for you. But this was totally different. Ward 17, where most of the patients I was focussing on were or had spent time, was quiet. There were no times of the day when everyone was together. The only time I saw more than one patient at a time was on two consecutive Thursdays, during the Ward Meeting. This is where inpatients are told about programs they can attend, like anger management or yoga. And where they can air their grievances: medication arriving late, the quality of food, whether there will be a set of weights for the common area. I turned up to both meetings and pitched my story: how I needed their help, how it was their story not mine, how I was aware that this was their ‘home’ and I was not here to pry. It was intimidating and very real. By this I mean, we can imagine soldiers, we can imagine a facility, but these were real men in a real hospital with real issues and real lives. 

Many people have asked what it was like talking to the six men. To be honest, at the time I found it OK. There were a few times I felt very moved by their honesty and stories and that was tough. A few times, both me and my interviewee had tears in our eyes. I made a point of giving my mobile number to everyone after our chat. I didn’t ask for their details, of course, but I wanted them to feel like they had control over their story. I didn’t want them to wake up the next day and regret sharing it, and that anxiety setting back their treatment. I assured them that if they changed their mind, all they had to do was call me. No-one did. 

I knew the story was starting to get to me when I woke up one morning, towards the end of my first week, and heard about the MH17 plane crash. I normally would have been in shock, trying to find as much information as possible. But I didn’t react at all. In fact, I felt quite numb. I told myself to put it in a box in my head and I walked to work. I have read and seen enough trauma in journalists to know when red flags appear and I saw one in my own behaviour. I was all-consumed with this feature and the material was pretty distressing. Not in terms of bodies and conflict and all the things we come across - but it was emotionally very tough. I have seen men cry and struggle, but I had never been around so much emotional fragility.

The first week, I spoke to one man, David G, who ended up being the main character in my piece. The second week, I spoke to five men. It took that amount of time to gain their trust and I was reminded why time is such an important element in creating long-form journalism. You have to let it sink in. You have to be around people. You have to let story elements come across your path. One day, I spent a few hours wandering around the hospital grounds and I found the chapel and read through the visitors book. I had a chat with the pastor who had spoken to many veterans and told me about their struggles. I sat in the memorial garden. None of these insights made their way into the final product but in a way, they did. They became part of the emotional fabric of the story. The importance of osmosis cannot be underestimated.

On my second week, I had photographer Tim Leslie with me. Again, this required a lot of care around privacy and access. Tim and I workshopped ideas and touched base a few times a day. But we decided to operate separately and not be seen to be walking around in a 'pack'. Tim was wonderful and had a great way with the guys. He knew when to be present and when to pull away. It was a conscious decision to bring in Tim during the second week, the idea being that by then I had become part of the woodwork. We worked hard at striking a balance between letting the stories come to us and being very specific about what we would ideally like to have access to. 

When I arrived home in Sydney, I felt disjointed. My fiancé Mark gently asked how I was after a few days of me being a bit irritable and absent. I had to acknowledge then that the fortnight had got to me, and I poured my sadness out onto him: the unfairness of life, the loneliness of these men, the broken souls. At the same time, I had a tight deadline. I was determined to write something that might do the men’s stories justice. I dabbled with style and wrote a few tests here and there but nothing felt right. It seemed very formulaic. Writer Saul Bellow once said, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” And one night, I woke up at about 2:00 am with what would become the opening line. Each day after that the writing became easier, even therapeutic.

Once that draft was written, it was off to the interactive storytelling unit in Brisbane to do their thing. I was adamant from the beginning that this piece be an online feature. I had some requests to make it cross-platform but in this case, I stuck to my own vision of what I thought this story should be. I felt that the online medium was right for a sensitive topic: one, it gave those in the story privacy; and the men were much more comfortable knowing that their names could be easily concealed. I believe this - and the fact there were no cameras or recording devices during our interviews - was why they were so open and honest. Secondly, I thought of the user experience: I imagined a soldier or a wife or a friend reading the piece in the privacy of their own online space, or on their phone or tablet. There is an intimacy in that and the team in Brisbane did such a wonderful job making the piece visually accessible. Collating the images, text, artwork and format took them a month.

I had decided to write it in the first person - a decision that took me a few weeks to get to. It went against my own "rules" but I realised that I, too, had been on a journey. And those I had spoken to were so honest and vulnerable - it was as if I owed it to them to drop my reporter guard, and be honest and vulnerable, too. I also wanted to take our readers with me to a place they are unlikely to ever see, and let them discover that place through my eyes.