Deutsche Welle: What does trauma mean in the case of journalists?
Cait McMahon: Psychological trauma is really an exposure and an impact to an event that is regarded as being outside of the usual human experience, like a car crash, like being part of a bombing, being shot at. Things that are not usual everyday experiences. The impact of that onto the psyche is the traumatic reaction that people have.
How many journalists are traumatised?
About 28 percent of war correspondents have post-traumatic stress disorder. And of domestic reporters and photographers, five percent to about fifteen percent show that they have post-traumatic stress disorder. Then of course there are other post-trauma reactions, like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, which is quite high in the profession.
How can a journalist prepare him- or herself for potentially traumatic situations?
We, the Draft Centre, believe through education, by making people aware of potential reactions and also self-care techniques that we can teach people strategies to look after themselves better in potential traumatic situations. Just things even as simple as making sure you eat well and drink properly and don’t overuse alcohol and drugs. It is very important that people sleep well. There are very basic techniques people often don’t worry about, but there are really important in dealing with trauma.
What are psychological means of survival?
Something that does happen in trauma is that people often get quite dissociated or very spacey in their thinking. So educating people about that and how to bring yourself back out of those situations. Keeping yourself mentally alert, if you are in captivity. One journalist who was held captive said to me ‘Don’t let your mind go soft’. It is really important to keep active. If you read autobiographical accounts of people who were held captive, they actually wrote books in their head or kept remembering conversations with friends. So to keep your mind going through the discipline of remembering things and picturing things in your mind. That is very important in captivity.
Interestingly, journalists cover stories about other people, but forget about themselves. Is that one of the reasons why the topic of traumatised journalists is not really talked about?
I think that is true. The news business is very much: you do a story and then you go on to another story, so it doesn’t by nature let you process your own experience. You are always focused outward, you are always focused on the next story, which is not good in terms of trauma exposure. The things that make you traumatised are the things that you haven’t processed. So you really need time to just stop and process and think about and work through them. Even writing things down or talking about them helps the process. It’s not part of the journalism culture. So we have to re-educate the media profession about the importance of doing that stuff.