LEST WE FORGET OURSELVES: Andreas Leonakis makes the silent struggle visible as he walks 620km.
LEST WE FORGET OURSELVES: Andreas Leonakis makes the silent struggle visible as he walks 620km. Bianca Hrovat

STRENGTH IN SADNESS: Survivors speak for PTSD awareness

ONCE you've come face-to-face with the unimaginable horror of war it can be difficult to recognise the enemy lurking within your own mind.

For ex-servicemen and women of Warwick this invisible enemy is often the most insidious: It's flashbacks, nightmares and that never-ending panicky feeling in your chest.

While you might not be able to see it, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the most common anxiety disorder for men in Australia.

This is one of the reasons Andreas Leonakis walks the 520km return trip from Brisbane to Wallangarra each year with the ANZAC flag flying.

The Brisbane man you may have spotted wandering down the New England Highway this weekend was raising funds for Mates4Mates, a charity that assists Australian Defence Force personnel to recover from trauma and rebuild their lives.

"They do really important work with PTSD,” Mr Leonakis said.

The month of June is PTSD awareness month, when organisations and individuals join together to raise awareness of the disorder and encourage survivors to seek help.

Warwick ex-serviceman Barry Kelly met hundreds of PTSD sufferers in the 15 years he advocated for veterans' recognition and benefits and saw first-hand how damaging the disorder could be.

People with PTSD are at a much higher risk of death by suicide, accelerated aging and cardiovascular disease.

Help is available, but Mr Kelly said for many, the greatest obstacle is themselves.

"A hell of a lot of it is pride, and that pride makes it very difficult,” Mr Kelly said.

"Some of them think they can't win, or that nothing is wrong with them, or they just get drunk every night to forget.”

One man who struggled to seek help was Mr Kelly's 43 year-old-son who passed four years ago.

Another man, former police officer Andrew Gale said witnessing hundreds of confronting incidents over the course of his career contributed to the development of his PTSD.

"People used to tell me to just get over it,” he said.

"Being affected by trauma was an admission you were weak.”

Around 12 per cent of Australians will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetime but many don't seek support due to this perceived weakness.

For Mr Gale, it took a "verbal slapping” from a psychiatrist to realise how wrong that was.

"I realised the path of trying to seem tough and machismo wasn't going to work,” he said.

"Now I realise how resilient I am, how tough I am, because I'm not afraid to cry.”

"If anything, it's made me stronger.”

The former cop said he was lucky to have made it through with the support of his family who had tried, time and again, to drag him away from "the path to misery.”

"I was literally five minutes way from finding a different way out,” he said.

For those wanting to help a friend or family member there are many services now available, with both men reporting a significant change in public sentiment.

"There are so many more support services available now,” Mr Kelly said.

One service that is supporting those struggling is the Southern Downs Ex-Services Association Queensland Incorporated, which welcomes ex-defence and ex-emergency services personnel to come down on a Friday afternoon at the corner of Wood and Tooth St.

"Most of them muck around a lot but if there's a sensitive subject they can talk about it with each other,” Mr Kelly said.

"The guys will tell you they can't live without it.”

Mr Gale, who has been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but ill-informed words of wisdom, said families and friends should never tell a PTSD survivor to "get over it”.

IF you, or someone you know, is struggling phone Lifeline on 13 11 14. For more information on Southern Downs Ex-Services Association phone 4661 5099.