Being brave: journalists talk about trauma
Although journalists are not immune to the emotional trauma that comes with working in conflict zones, many of them are reluctant to speak up about their emotional and mental crisis for fear that it can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. We speak to three journalist who strongly believe that unless this subject is discussed openly, many reporters will suffer in silence. Here, they share their personal experiences with us
In the summer of 2014, Lebanese-born photographer Dalia Khamissy walked into a therapist’s clinic seeking advice.
She had just gone through another bout of sleeplessness, anxiety and depression. She was exhausted from work, and was finding it difficult to relate to friends who worked outside of her field.
“I described my symptoms to the therapist and she told me I had Extreme Cumulative Stress Disorder,” she recalls. “But the good news was that I was well on my way to getting better because I admitted that I had a problem. I was aware of it and wanted to do something about it.”
Although Dalia never worked on the frontlines of armed conflict, war has been a major part of her life and work. “I lived in war my whole life,” she says.
From her first ever assignment in 2004, documenting the flow of refugees from Iraq to Jordan, to the 2006 war in Lebanon, then her current work with Syrian refugees, and her on-going project, “The Missing of Lebanon”, with the families of the 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared during the Civil War, Dalia is constantly exposed to the extreme emotional suffering of others, and she feels her condition is a natural consequence to that.
“There is nothing to be ashamed of. Any normal person would go through what I’ve been through.”
It was the summer war of 2006 in Lebanon that started a chain of emotional distress. At the time, Dalia was a photo editor with the Associated Press.
“One day, I came back to my desk after my lunch break and found a CD of images. When I opened it, the photos were so horrible I nearly threw up,” she recalls. “But later on, I got used to seeing the images that I would be having my lunch at my desk while working on them.”
“Strangely, I wasn’t actually crying. It was as if a water tank overflowed and finally exploded.”
She remained calm and focussed until the war was finally over, and that’s when the stress and trauma began to show. One day, she sat on her desk and tears streamed from her eyes for four hours. “Strangely, I wasn’t actually crying,” she explains. “It was as if a water tank overflowed and finally exploded.”
It became clear that Dalia was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She quit her job with AP, stopped covering wars, and started a project on abandoned spaces. Within a year, she was able to overcome her PTSD.
Few journalists are as willing as Dalia to speak candidly. Some admitted privately that they suffered trauma and are seeking help, but declined to share their experiences in public because they still felt fragile and vulnerable. Others don’t want to challenge the general perception that journalists are resilient and capable of handling war and suffering. There’s a fear that admission of trauma may be seen as weakness.
Abeer Saady is a safety-trainer who conducts training course with Libyan, Syrian and Iraqi journalists. Although her focus is on field safety, group discussions often lead to the realm of mental and emotional trauma.
"Journalists are like finger prints. No one is the same," she says. "Someone might recount a horrific incident that happened to them, and someone else in the room would break down [upon hearing it] because it triggered a memory for them."
Italian journalist Laura Silvia Battaglia remembers the anxiety she felt around her colleagues and students when she had a minor panic attack.
“I have been reporting on people’s suffering for more than 10 years,” says Laura, who worked in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. But the panic came when she was in the comfort of her office in Milan, at the university where she currently teaches.
I was surrounded by my students and colleagues and I was afraid of the stigma because everyone looked up to me as a hero, so I locked myself inside a bathroom and tried to breathe
There was a demonstration for the G8, and the sounds of helicopters hovering over her building took her back to conflict zones where she used to hear the same sounds.
“I was so frightened. I wanted to shout, cry, escape. It was as if death was coming to me,” she said. “That day I was surrounded by my students and colleagues and I was afraid of the stigma because everyone looked up to me as a hero, so I locked myself inside a bathroom and tried to breathe.”
Laura also went to a psychotherapist and decided to tackle her situation early on and prevent it from getting worse. “I’ve had colleagues who suffered PTSD and I witnessed the consequences of that on them. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.”
PTSD is one of the most serious conditions that could develop after witnessing a traumatic or terrifying event. While milder forms of trauma are temporary and can be treated with simple techniques, PTSD could worsen with time if not dealt with professionally, and it could stop the sufferer from leading a normal life.
Al Jazeera correspondent Bushra Abdulsamad was diagnosed with PTSD a few years ago and is currently establishing a centre in Lebanon for the prevention and treatment of trauma among journalists.
“If I had spoken more with people who were going through what I went through while covering wars, and had I taken the general rules on safety more seriously, then I wouldn’t have developed this condition,” she says. “But for a long I didn’t understand what I was going through. Living in a war zone, you think that stress and anxiety is natural because everybody experiences the same thing, and so you don’t talk about it.”
In 2007, her emotional stress began to affect her physical health. She suffered a slipped disc and needed an operation. But the breaking point came just before a live-two way broadcast, where she was supposed to report on a car bomb in the Southern Suburb of Beirut.
“I took my position and had to wait 30 minutes before it was my turn to go on air,” she recalls. “Suddenly, I got dizzy, I couldn’t breathe and I started shaking. I just had to tell the newsroom that I couldn’t do it.”
Bushra still goes to therapy, reads extensively on PTSD and will soon be helping other journalists through her trauma and support centre. Raising awareness about this, she says, is badly needed in Lebanon and the region.
Battling with denial and over-identification
Psychotherapist Ghida Husseini says many of her patients are in denial about their condition, and a lot of therapy time is being spent on recognising the problem.
“Many of my clients still don’t want to accept they are suffering from PTSD and I have to spend a lot of time explaining to them what happened and why they are going through this.”
One of the key challenges is convincing journalists that mental and emotional stress is not part of the job and must be dealt with.
“People often say this trauma comes with the job. Well, no! I’m sorry! This doesn’t come with the job and you have to fix yourself,” she asserts, “even psychotherapists have to fix themselves. How can I help my client if I can’t help myself?”
But most journalists who witness the most harrowing conflicts in the region today live in places with little or no access to professional counselling. Ghida says that in such circumstances, it is important to take measures to limit the likelihood of trauma.
“One of the key measures is not to over-identify with the victims or interviewees,” she says. “But, granted, there is a thin line there that even the most professional journalists cannot always see.”
Over-identification, in this context, is when a journalist becomes involved in the stories they cover to the extent where they begin to experience the same negative and distressing emotions of the people they interview. But without even getting to this stage, many journalists find themselves feeling guilty or responsible towards their interviewees to an extent that creates a significant emotional burden.
This is how Dalia felt when she began her project with some of the families of an estimated 17,000 Lebanese who went missing during the Civil War.
“Whenever I would post a photo on the internet, I’d get lots of comments from people encouraging me to continue doing this work and telling me how sad and shocked they were to read these stories,” she says. “It reached a point where I felt a huge burden of responsibility on my shoulders and I almost couldn’t go on.”
But in addition to wading through the grey area between empathy and over-identification, Ghida says that journalists can also protect themselves by following simple techniques, such as breathing and exercise. The most basic rules of self-care can have a significant impact on mental and emotional health.
“Treating trauma doesn’t mean you have to stop working. It means giving yourself a break and getting some rest so you can go back to work as normal.”
Both Dalia and Laura can now handle the stress without the need for counselling. Dalia says that physical exercise and eating well have been very helpful.
“Sometimes, I just skip the rope or jump in my room for 10 minutes and that’s enough,” she says. “I cook, I do some gardening, and surround myself with good friends. If I get so busy and stop looking after myself, then I start to feel the stress coming back.”
Laura also adopted some breathing techniques and draws strength from enjoying the simple things in life.
“I started to appreciate nature more. I like gardening and taking care of flowers and enjoying natural landscapes.”
She also draws strength of the company of healthy people. “I don’t want to be alone anymore. I’ve made friends with people who don’t judge. I also talk and share a lot of experiences with other women.”
Bushra Abdelsamad can no longer do live interviews on TV, and works mainly on television features. She says she’s fortunate that her network has been understanding and supporting throughout this difficult period.
“Journalists need to respect their own feelings rather than fight them,” she advises. “Your feelings of stress and anxiety are only part of being human. But you need to look after yourselves early on before you reach a stage where it becomes very difficult.”