In April 2018, The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network held its first ever workshop on mental health in Ramallah. Members from the West Bank met to share their experiences in working under occupation. They worked with Palestinian therapist Laila Atshan and yoga instructor Nouran Nassief to find ways to cope with the emotional stress and overcome the challenges facing them at work and in their personal lives.
Every time I interview the mother of a martyr or a prisoner I end up carrying an extra burden that is intolerable to me
It wasn’t easy for me to consider taking part in a workshop on mental health because I was afraid I’d discover that I need counselling. This was enough for me to hesitate. But then I realized that I needed help to face life’s hurdles, which became worse with the recent death of my mother. I was constantly afraid that I would lose my job as a journalist, I was afraid of lack of opportunities, not to mention the social injustices against Palestinian women in Hebron. Every time I interviewed women there I felt that I was carrying their burdens with me. I suffer from those problems and injustices as well.
The Israeli occupation is still the main reason for our daily suffering. Aside from its daily transgressions against us, I get scared every time I interview the mother of a martyr or a prisoner because I end up carrying an extra burden that is intolerable to me. I suffer from daily restrictions on my freedom to move and travel. Those restrictions were the reason why I couldn’t see my mother in her final moments. She was being treated in Jerusalem, and I cannot go there without a permit.
How can I endure all this pain and anger? I realised that I should seriously consider speaking with an expert to help alleviate some of this burden. In this workshop, Dr. Laila Atshan has helped us confront our problems by bringing us closer as a group. We felt comfortable in each other’s company and we broke our silences and spoke openly about everything without fear or shame. Laila succeeded in making this happen because she was close to us, and we felt a ‘spiritual’ connection with her. I don’t know if this is the appropriate phrase but this is truly how I felt.
Laila Atshan (she specifically asked us not to call her ‘doctor’) was able to reach within us and find some internal peace; both within ourselves and towards others. In this workshop, I was able to make peace with myself – to understand who I am and what I want. I am not exaggerating when I say that those two days were the most beautiful days I’ve had recently. We cried and laughed and played.
We started off with group sessions where we talked openly as a team. Then, we worked in pairs as colleagues, and we talked in more detail about things we wouldn’t normally confront, even when we’re alone.
In this workshop, I was able to make peace with myself – to understand who I am and what I want. We cried and laughed and played
The best thing about Laila is her sense of humour and her ability to confront her difficulties. She listened attentively and worked on banishing all negative thoughts and helping us change the way we look at things through exercises and games, as well as sharing her own personal stories.
There was also the yoga sessions which were given by Nouran Nassief. Her beautiful spirit and her smile always gave us positive energy, and it made me wonder whether she acquired this energy from her work as a Yoga instructor or if she was born that way! These yoga session were like a medicine for us. Meditation sessions, mindfulness excercises and listening to soft music really helped us find points of strength within us. The best thing about Yoga is that it can be done at home, any time no matter how short, and you don’t need to be a professional to do them right.
Laila and Nouran have advised us to pay attention to the simplest things like listening to music, exercise, writing, dancing, even sitting alone with nature – these are all useful steps and I will try to follow them.
This workshop has helped alleviate some of the mental and emotional pressure that I was suffering from. It also helped me deal better with my family. On a professional level, I’ve learned how to listen to my interviewees in a way that could help them also express themselves and vent off because sometimes all we need is someone to talk to.
In those two days, it became clear to me that mental health is as important as physical health. It can even impact your body, and so I advise all my colleagues to pay attention to their mental health and I thank The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network for this opportunity.
If you work in conflict zones, or if you regularly interview victims of wars or violence, follow these tips from Palestinian therapist Laila Atshan to mitigate the impact on your emotional health.
- Butterfly effect: You may witness all sorts of traumatic events in your work, and you will almost always feel helpless in the face of human suffering. Just remember that while you cannot save the world, you can do a lot just by being a good journalist. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said the butterfly’s effect is too small to be seen, but is too important that it never vanishes, so think of your work as the butterfly’s effect.
- Be aware of survivor’s guilt: Don’t deprive yourself of the right to be joyful and happy in your own life. If you interview victims of war and conflict, don’t feel guilty because you are not suffering like them. Remember, you cannot save the world in this way.
- Enjoy the simple things: Enjoy life even in the small details. Go for a walk, listen to music, talk to friends. These small things really matter.
- Learn how to listen, and teach your friends how to listen too: Sometimes we think we’re helping our friends when we tell them how ‘strong’ or ‘brave’ they are in the face of adversity. But these words can be counterproductive because they confiscate the right to feel sad or weak. It’s ok to be sad or feel down, we can’t be brave and strong all the time.
If you feel that your work is having a negative impact on your emotional health, please check the sources available under the “Psychological health and trauma” section of the Resource Centre on our website, or contact the editor, Dima Hamdan, on this email