Author of IMS report Michelle Betz assesses interventions in Yemen, Indonesia and Afghanistan

Trauma troubles

We need to talk more about journalists with trauma

My interest in mental health really started when I began working in post-genocide Rwanda. I saw all these young kids and teens who were very clearly traumatized. At the time, I did a radio story on mental health in that country. Fast forward a number of years and I found myself in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic in 2014 to lead a training of women journalists. During one of the breaks, one of the journalists, Blanche Olofio, approached and asked to speak to me. I learned that she had been brutally beaten several months prior and she told me that the beatings still replayed in her mind. She asked me how she could “stop seeing these horrible images”. I didn’t have an answer for her.

Later that day I reached out to my husband who’s a psychiatrist. Over the next day or two he looked for resources that would be appropriate but there was nothing. There were some tips and guidelines but they were clearly geared to Western journalists who parachuted into conflict zones and then were able to go home. Blanche didn’t have that option. Her radio station had been destroyed, she was an IDP far from home and the beatings continued to haunt her. My husband was able to provide some basic self-care tips that I shared with Blanche, but she died a month later as a result of her injuries.  It was clear that there was not only a need to provide support to journalists like Blanche, but that we really needed to understand what approaches might be most appropriate in situations where there were few, if any, mental health resources to provide support so that these journalists, who often work as fixers for Western media, can do their work safely and professionally, without fear and without self-censoring.

Trauma may show in the news

There are many ways trauma affects the work of journalists. If journalists are traumatized they are more likely to self-censor, which affects the way news is covered (or not). Self-censorship essentially becomes a coping mechanism and even a survival strategy in some contexts. In countries in conflict this self-censorship can also have negative effects on peace building potential, for example. Trauma also leads to stress and to burnout of journalists and will effect negatively the work they produce.

I think the most surprising thing that I’ve come across so far has been the notion of historical trauma which is essentially trauma that is experienced over time and across generations by a group of people who share an identity or circumstance. It just suddenly made sense to me. Think about countries like Afghanistan or Rwanda.

Both countries are composed of multiple generations that have known nothing but conflict. That surely must affect the psyche, your worldview and how you view your community’s place in the world, for example. How can communities work to build peace if they themselves have never known peace? This, to me, is critical even more so as these events are carried forward through public narratives that not only recount the events but also individual and collective responses to them and in many cases these public narratives are created or reported by journalists.

Psychosocial support is critical but it can also do substantial harm if we’re not careful in our approach. There should be a critical understanding of the effects of trauma on the work of journalists and on peace building, but this needs to be combined with a solid understanding of each particular context. In many communities, mental health issues are taboo.

I think psychosocial needs of local journalists have received little attention for a number of reasons. First, mental health, even in our own societies, is often not considered essential or at the very least it’s very low on the totem pole. Second, in many of these countries there is little in the way of support available so perhaps it doesn’t jump out as a need. Third, I don’t think we have recognized until recently the negative effects trauma can have on the work of journalists and thus needs to be addressed. And finally, mental health is an area that scares people and that in many places there is huge stigma attached so it’s like this big unknown and we simply haven’t thought about it let alone thinking about what can be done to support these journalists.

When I lived in Ghana, for example, so-called “witches” were sent away to northern Ghana to live in witch camps but in reality many of these people were simply mentally ill and living in a society where mental health was taboo. So there needs to be a solid understanding of the context, of how that community views mental health issues and then working with mental health practitioners to discern most appropriate ways to provide support to the local journalists that we work with around the world.