“Hidden Cries for Help…”: Addressing Vicarious Trauma in Journalists
Most journalists, if not all, experience at least one traumatic event in the course of their professional lives.
“I can’t get the image of burnt bodies everywhere out of my mind. It haunts me every night and I have nightmares.”-On-ground reporter from a crash site
“My work involved long hours of conversation with people who were crying about their dead kids, dead brothers and sisters. Most of them would be sobbing. There were days when I burst into tears, wiped them away, like, ‘Alright-next one.’ It is exhausting.”-Journalist covering opioid crisis
The Problem Premise
These experiences are not uncommon for journalists and media personnel. Most of them hold back from sharing the impact it had on them with colleagues because of the fear of being seen as unfit for the job or taken off from the project.
Unfortunately enough, trauma is perceived as weakness!
Vicarious trauma is secondary trauma experienced by people who deal with trauma victims, witness them going through it or cover/report traumatic incidents.
Some professionals such as doctors, police and journalists are exposed to crime, violence, and bloodshed more than others. For journalists, the task usually involves covering the incidents in-depth to narrate it to the public. It also repeatedly exposes them to witnessing the agony and pain of victims of trauma or people related to trauma victims.
Unfortunately, since there’s significant stigma and misinformation around mental health, people shy away from sharing their experiences.
Unspoken emotions get piled up and can gradually lead to burnout and other difficult experiences among professionals.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 70% of adults experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. 20% of people who experience trauma develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe reaction to a major traumatic event, that needs professional help.
Research suggests that majority of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event. Repeated exposure to trauma amongst journalists can result in adverse psychological reactions and poor wellbeing.
Although repeated exposure desensitizes journalists to certain extent, at one point it can get over the edge. Flashbacks and images of disturbing incidents they covered can keep coming back.
Many journalists on national and international televisions were seen breaking down while covering traumatic incidents such as bombing, rape, abuse and other disasters. In some cases, journalists have reported of having frequent nightmares resulting in poor sleep for days together after repeatedly being exposed to traumatic incidents.
Some other difficulties include anxiety, irritability, nightmares, lack of focus/concentration, missing deadlines, feeling overwhelmed, resorting to substance abuse or eating to cope, burnout etc.
Vicarious trauma manifestation may not be immediate. It may cause an intense emotional and physical response to memory or thoughts about the incident. In some cases, the experiences might be temporary but if you are exposed to these incidents repeatedly without help, the challenges become long-term and complex.
In extreme cases it can also lead to mental health issues such as depression or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). No traumatic experience, no matter how trivial, should be ignored.
In the wake of global health crisis due to COVID-19, continuous reporting of loss and grief can have lasting impact on journalists as well.
Regular exposure to ‘negative’ news and information overload also affects the public negatively. It is important to train and sensitize professionals as to how much of these incidents journalists should cover and how much the public should be exposed to.
Viewers' discretion to horrifying information and images should be ensured. Since this is a subjective topic, its importance often gets diluted and ignored.
However, this would be the right time to assume collective responsibility about debunking misinformation and safeguard the media professionals from persistent trauma.
Vicarious trauma is not uncommon. It has nothing to do with one’s self-esteem and psychological strength. In most cases, neglect and normalization of these experiences causes more harm than good.
This doesn't mean that every traumatic reaction is a disorder. However, if it impairs your personal or professional activity, it's best to seek help.
Further, there are certain vulnerabilities: being a fresher and not being oriented to the job adequately, lack of supervision and experience, repeated and intense exposure to traumatic content with no breaks or variation in work, those who cover homicide/suicide, health disasters and natural calamities, limited social support, history of traumatic experiences in personal life, a tendency to withdraw or avoid feelings, etc.
Dealing with trauma needs to occur at an organizational level, irrespective of hierarchy.
It may be helpful to have spaces to discuss and share these experiences of trauma in media houses, have support groups, periodic breaks from work, sensitivity of editors/seniors and safe space to talk about their experiences.
It may also be beneficial to have counselling sessions and awareness discussion within the media houses. Seeking professional help for mental health should be normalized and organizations should encourage their employees to reach out for help when necessary. PTSD and other severe manifestations of trauma can be effectively treated if dealt with in time.
Reach out for hands in need of help, lest they bear lifelong scars of buried trauma which never saw the light of the day.
If you are going through any of these difficulties yourself or someone you know is going through this, do not delay or hesitate to reach out for help. Sometimes all that’s needed is a patient audience to ensure help-seeking and fighting stigma.
In the words of Laurell K. Hamilton, “There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
(Dr. Debanjan Banerjee is a Consultant Geriatric Psychiatrist based out of Kolkata. Vindya V Rai is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Abhaya Hospital, Bangalore)
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