How stand-up comedy helped a Falklands veteran cope with PTSD

A Falklands veteran who turned to stand-up comedy to help manage his post-traumatic stress has now written a book that tells of his time during the conflict, how he battled PTSD and how he went on to a career as a professional photographer and comedian.

David Cruickshanks, a Royal Navy veteran turned press photographer, comedian and author, was only 17 when he deployed on HMS Fearless in 1982 to defend the Falkland Islands from Argentinian invasion - one of the youngest Scots to serve in the conflict.

Now David has written a book, 'Stayin' Alive – How PTSD (Nearly) Stole My Life,' to help him manage his PTSD. In the autobiographical work, which is due to be published on 6 May this year, he includes stories from his time in the Falklands and some of the ways he has managed his mental health.

David added: "It kind of documents, basically my life really, and how I've managed PTSD and sometimes how I've not managed it and it's been with me for quite a long time so I've had to get used to living my life with PTSD." 

Forty years since the Falklands conflict, in which 255 service personnel lost their lives, and many more were left with life-changing injuries and memories that still haunt them to this day, the veteran uses a variety of different methods to manage his post-traumatic stress, including writing and stand-up comedy. 

Speaking with Liz Mullen, broadcaster at BFBS the Forces Station, he said: "I think humour is an amazing weapon and I think that because I've been through a bit of a journey with PTSD, I felt I had ownership over some of the material that I could use in terms of my own mental health journey and actually using humour … creates a bit of a discussion."

David Cruickshanks (left) and Dave Moy (right) pose beside the Sea Harrier on the flight deck of HMS Fearless in 'Bomb Alley' (Picture: David Cruickshanks).
David Cruickshanks (left) and Dave Moy (right) pose beside the Sea Harrier on the flight deck of HMS Fearless in 'Bomb Alley' (Picture: David Cruickshanks).

The Falklands conflict 

In April 1982, the young sailor was stationed at Faslane submarine base when he was told he would be heading to the Falklands on HMS Fearless. 

David and his comrades realised how serious the situation that they were heading towards was, when they heard of the sinking of HMS Sheffield. 

The Type 42 destroyer was hit on 4 May 1982 by an Argentinian Exocet missile. The attack and subsequent fires claimed the lives of 20 British sailors and injured 24 more. Six days after the attack, the ship sank while being towed - the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk since the Second World War. 

Book front cover 'Stayin' Alive – How PTSD (Nearly) Stole My Life' (Picture: Razur Cuts Books / David Cruickshanks).
'Stayin' Alive – How PTSD (Nearly) Stole My Life' front cover (Picture: Razur Cuts Books / David Cruickshanks).

The veteran still wells up thinking about the moment he and two other sailors from HMS Fearless were walking on the main road into Stanley after the Argentinian surrender in June 1982.

It was here that two women hugged them to show their gratitude for the part they played in protecting the Falkland Islands. He says he would love to know who they were, adding: "My two abiding memories of the Falkland Islands were meeting those two women ... and a few minutes later being told I was on a minefield."

David in Number One dress uniform with South Atlantic Medal Royal Navy (Picture: David Cruickshanks).
David in Number One dress uniform with South Atlantic Medal (Picture: David Cruickshanks).

David says he did at times sabotage his own life due to his PTSD and that, looking back now with hindsight, he would have made different decisions.

However, he said his Royal Navy career gave him some "incredible opportunities" and, following his PTSD diagnosis, he went on to cover many "high adrenaline" events as a press photographer.

Still, he was not the photographer he is today while he was serving. He said: "I was a rubbish photographer when I was in the Navy although some of my better images never made it back to me and they may have been lost on a ship but I don’t know for sure."

Eventually, his talent blossomed and he became a photographer after being medically discharged from the Royal Navy after injuring his knee.

He was a photographer for The Daily Record at Prince Diana's funeral in 1997, capturing the emotive image below of Princes William and Harry with their father Prince Charles as the funeral cortege drove by.

The veteran considers himself to have been immensely lucky as a photographer. He worked in London for seven years and specialised in portraiture, photographing well-known faces like Muhammad Ali, Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie and the members of Westlife among others.

He also photographed former Labour leader Tony Blair. About this experience, David said: "I have a portrait of Tony Blair whom I photographed approximately one week before his second electoral victory which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection."

However, photography is not David's only passion. He is also a keen cyclist. At one stage, he was invited to try out for the Invictus Games Cycling team. He said: "I couldn't believe it when they said I could do the trials in Sheffield. 

"I wasn't successful in making the team, but I did get to work with representatives from British Cycling, which was absolutely incredible. 

"I actually saw a lot of people who were overcoming huge obstacles. That was a hugely emotional journey." 

David Cruickshanks performing stand-up comedy in Dunfermline, Scotland (Picture: David Cruickshanks ).
David Cruickshanks performing stand-up comedy in Dunfermline, Scotland (Picture: David Cruickshanks ).

David's own personal mental health journey has been helped by doing stand-up comedy. He said that "humour is an amazing weapon" so his comedy sets in the past have included making fun of his own mental health and anxiety. 

The veteran has been performing stand up for about five years but had to take a year out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is back performing live gigs in person or via Zoom.

Was David funny while he served with the Royal Navy? Is that where his passion for comedy began? Perhaps not, as he explains: "My shipmates were either laughing at me or chasing me out of the mess for annoying them."

However, it's not all laughter and frivolity. David's own experience of PTSD has led him to want to help others who might be suffering from mental health problems, as he explained to Liz, saying: "When I do my stand-up routine on mental health, I always say, you know, if anyone wants to seriously have a little chat about this at the end of my set, I'm more than happy to chat about it." 

David hopes that by offering this at the end of his performances, he is helping to break down the stigma of mental health and PTSD. 

Head to our Falklands 40 page, where you can find our memorial wall, as well as more Falklands stories, videos and podcasts.

If you or someone you know needs support with managing PTSD, you can find help here.

Cover Image: David Cruickshanks posing beside the entrance to the engine room (Picture: David Cruickshanks).

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