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Post-Traumatic Stress – the Tony Dell story

Tony Dell is the only living Australian to have played Test cricket and served in active combat. Selected by Sir Donald Bradman as Australia’s 255th Test cricketer, Dell, a tall left-arm fast bowler, played two Tests under legendary captain Ian Chappell.  His debut was against England in the seventh Test at Sydney (1970-71), where he took five wickets; opening the bowling with Dennis Lillee. Dell claimed six Test wickets at 26.66, and took 41 first-class wickets at 26.70 (best 6/17) before retiring at just 27 years old.  

Back in 1965, long before his Test and Queensland Sheffield Shield career began, a young Tony Dell was called up for National Service, and served in 2RAR (2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment) in Vietnam from 1967-68.

About 10 years ago, Tony walked into the office of Mental Health Australia (where I was Director of Communications) and told me he had post-traumatic stress. He wanted to do something to help veterans and others who experience this condition. PTS (many feel the word ‘disorder’ stigmatises those with the condition), as Tony Dell’s website explains, is “contracted when the human brain is subjected to some sort of adverse experience, tragic event or fear that it wasn’t built to withstand. Many humans can be subjected to events that can cause this condition. In fact, nearly all of us can experience some sort of event which will challenge our senses. This can have just a short-term effect or it can be long lasting, depending on the person and the event.”

For those with PTS, the memory of traumatic events can be suppressed into the subconscious. If the event isn’t dealt with, it can foment and affect the person’s life in debilitating ways. Symptoms can appear gradually without the person really noticing or being aware of the cause.

Tragically, for many war veterans and others who have untreated PTS, suicide is too often the outcome. It is reported that in the past decade Australia has lost more veterans to suicide than killed on the battlefield.  Tony’s story – from Test cricketer to divorce, and family problems – is commonplace for many veterans, but also for police, SES volunteers, firefighters and those who experience trauma through violence, accidents or natural disasters. 

What Tony Dell did to change this should be an episode of Australian Story. From absolutely nothing, he created StandTall4PTS [http://standtall4pts.org/], a unique campaign that has brought together the Australian Defence Force, police, sporting celebrities and others to raise awareness of PTS. StandTall4PTS has Sir Angus Houston, retired CDF, as patron. His campaign has been endorsed and supported by Prime Ministers, Test cricketers and leading sportspeople.

Dell’s aim is to ensure that medical practitioners and community health services understand what PTS is, how it impacts on the families and friends of those who experience it, and to ensure there are properly funded and appropriate resources in place for people with PTS.

The problem with PTS is that it is often couched within mental health, although many experts believe this isn’t how we should understand and respond to PTS. Although there is no definitive data available, some estimates are that about 1.5 million Australians have PTS to some extent.

In an interview with CricInfo, Dell said this about living with PTS: “It can be bad dreams, flashbacks, night sweats, teeth grinding, fear of being in crowds. For 20 or 30 years if I went into a room or a restaurant or something, I’d sit with my back to a wall facing out. You can become a workaholic. I know in my case I’d get up at the crack of dawn, go to work and wouldn’t come home until late at night because you’re subconsciously keeping yourself busy and shutting out times when you can sit and think. A lot of guys can’t handle it and start hitting the booze or drugs, substance abuse, and then it gets too much for a lot of people.”

When I met Tony Dell, he had only recently been diagnosed with PTS. It was only through his local Vietnam Veterans Drop-In Centre that he discovered what had affected him for decades. Anecdotally, there are many similar stories of people with undiagnosed PTS who churn in and out of various health services because of a lack of awareness and understanding of this condition. 

Today, Tony Dell runs a nationwide campaign to improve research to increase our understanding of PTS and ensure better pathways for help and treatment for those affected and their families.