International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma Therapy for Journalists: What is Needed?

Posted 20 January 2014 in StressPoints by Patrice Keats, PhD with Brian Kelly

Canadian Amanda Lindhout was a keynote speaker at the recent ISTSS 29th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. In 2008, she was working as a journalist in Somalia, along with Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan. Both were abducted on their way to conduct interviews in a camp outside of Mogadishu. Their captors held them hostage under dire conditions for 15 months before releasing them after being paid a substantial ransom by the journalists’ families. While in a Nairobi hospital after her release, Lindhout reported that a female trauma psychologist from Canada was flown there to support her and to help her through the vulnerable time of recovery. She continued that care upon on her return to Canada.

Whether they have experienced abduction, combat exposure, loss of a colleague on assignment, or witnessed atrocities, there are considerable physical and psychological dangers for journalists who work in trauma contexts. Indeed, journalists need to have access to effective and appropriate trauma-related psychological care. This article summarizes a conversation that Brian Kelly, an experienced journalist, and I had when discussing vital aspects for therapists to consider when caring for journalists who have been affected by trauma.

Brian Kelly, is a Montreal-born freelance cameraman who has been based in London, England for over thirty years, where he films television news and current affairs documentaries. His recent work includes the documentary Sector Sarajevo, directed by Barry Stevens for Canada's History Channel, segments on the Pope filmed in Rome for ABC's Good Morning America, and a feature interview with actor Judi Dench for CBS Morning News. His experiences filming traumatic events in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD. Brian participated in psychological treatment with a number of therapists and was successfully treated by an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)-trained therapist in London. He no longer goes to war zones.

Brian first sought psychological care when he experienced unexpected spontaneous crying in public places and frequent flashbacks related to the atrocities he had filmed overseas. It was an important and vital first step for him to admit to himself that he was psychologically unwell and needed to seek help. His individual and group-based therapeutic experiences left him able to: (a) diffuse and regulate upsetting emotional triggers (especially related to haunting flashbacks of traumatic images); (b) identify the triggers that caused his flashbacks and understand why it was happening; (c) integrate and accept his experiences as a curiosity rather than a “cancerous, overpowering evil;” (d) observe how other journalists dealt with trauma in varying degrees; and (e) accept that everyone is different and can tolerate different level of traumatic stress depending on their background and previous life events. Further, he now has a stronger self-acceptance, stating, “I can’t have those experiences and see difficult things without it having some impact; but, it doesn’t have to ruin the rest of my life . . . it is a part me, not all of me.”

What was important for him in making his trauma therapy successful? Like many clients, he noted the vital importance of a warm, empathic, respectful therapeutic relationship. In discussing the qualities of “helpful therapists,” he noted feelings of being an equal and respected as a person. He found these therapists more relatable, people he could identify with, which gave him confidence to be directly personal and disclose deep worries and experiences. He felt hopeful and was able to speak openly. He also stated that there was honesty in the relationship, and spoke of instances where his most helpful therapist used humor in useful ways. He also described how, with a good therapist, he was able to “go into a dark hole” and still maintain his integrity; and felt less shame and guilt in the aftermath of his experiences. This was a significant contrast to his experience of sessions with therapists that did not work for him; he found these practitioners to be cold, analytical, and clinical with the airs of an “expert” who pathologized and categorized him in a somewhat demeaning way. He noted how there was, “too much psychology going on,” which left him feeling misunderstood and more distant from these types of psychologists.

In trying to understand his experience in the aftermath of his work, Brian read about the nature of people’s trauma responses and about some of the different treatments available. This led him to seek an EMDR-trained therapist. This treatment modality worked very well for him. For example, his therapist fully explained how EMDR worked and what they would be doing together. The therapist then focused on resource-building in relation to the death of a close colleague who had been shot while he and Brian were working on assignment in Lebanon. It was a powerful first experience of EMDR, allowing Brian to safely express strong emotions, and prepare him for processing future disclosures. Additionally, when Brian experienced flashbacks in session he was able to learn how to deal with them, understand what was happening, and then cope better with these experiences in daily life and when he was with his family.

Brian also found talking to peers very helpful. He participated in peer-group training and discussion offered by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma in Europe. Since it is a common attitude in the journalism culture to “just get over it,” learning how to talk empathically to fellow journalists was very important. He recognized that despite the different age groups of people participating, his peers had different levels of experience with trauma, different responses to trauma, and a fundamental openness to talk about it with empathy and respect for each other.

Through participation in this group, Brian recognized that despite some differences he was not alone and saw familiarity in how others reacted to trauma. The traumatic events he experienced in his journalism work led to significant consequences he lived with every day (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, emotionally disconnected). In this group, he saw other people who were also successful, intelligent, and productive struggling with similar experiences and recognized that what was happening to him was a normal response (i.e., he saw others who were blocked off, disconnected, isolated).

He also noted how, like him, his peers were trying to avoid bringing home to their families all the horrible experiences they witnessed, and tried to carried it alone like a bad secret. In the group, he learned about trauma, practiced talking empathically with his peers, and realized he was not alone or unique in his struggle. To this day, the journalists in his group remain in contact with each other.

In the process of trying to find a therapist who was a good match, there were occasions where Brian thought he overwhelmed some of the therapists with the type of experiences he had. He stressed how he worried about the therapist too much, and noticed how he spoke more guardedly about his experiences in order to protect the psychologist. From these experiences, he posed a number of suggestions for counsellors and psychologists who are interested in helping journalists cope with traumatic experiences.

Brian believes that extensive knowledge about journalism culture is not essential, but can be very helpful for therapists in order to understand the type of context journalists work in; the impact of bouncing from one highly emotional event to another (e.g., death, war, suicide), with mundane events between (e.g., politics, local markets, entertainment); and the repercussions of the negative stereotypes and criticisms of the reading and viewing public. With an understanding of the journalistic work context, the journalism client does not have to spend time explaining their working conditions and expectations.

Brian believes that therapists with exposure to clients who have experienced violent trauma or combat helps because the therapist has the experience of clients who are struggling with similar types of trauma that journalist have been exposed to in their work. For example, the therapist can say things like, “I have talked to people like you,” and “I understand people’s struggles who have suffered similar experiences.” This decreases the journalists’ feelings of isolation or aloneness, and the need to take care of an overwhelmed therapist.

Brian also suggested therapists delve into images and stories of war and violence because it helps to expose them to the type of events that journalists witness. This exposure may develop a therapist’s empathy for what it might be like for journalists to be frequently exposed to, and witnessing traumatic events without being able to act, help, or resolve the consequences of the trauma. He also noted that journalists may have feelings of guilt for not being able to assist in some more practical ways (e.g., nursing, doctoring, educating), as they often run towards other people’s misery, sometime without a good intent.

Although bearing witness and reporting it to the public is important (the type of action that journalist take), it is essential to understand how the journalist’s feelings of guilt or shame can come from being a witness (i.e., survivor’s guilt from leaving people behind who are harmed), and how it is possible (and sometimes essential) to develop an immunity to people’s suffering, which feels wrong and also shuts down their feelings of empathy in their close personal relationships.

Repeated experiences of shock from seeing traumatic events and people suffering while trying to gather information or shoot images, often leaves journalists feeling helplessness in the context; and in addition, they may receive negative social responses from the news consumer (e.g., being called “vultures,” “scum”) in the course of their reporting or in the aftermath of a publication. Brian emphasized that journalists sometimes seek empathy and understanding from a therapist in relation to what they are doing as a vocation; needing to receive the message that it is acceptable, expected, essential, and important.

Brian also emphasized the importance of giving the journalism client an understanding of how therapy works and what will happen in the therapy session (including emotional regulation and processing emotionally intense traumatic material). He noted that sometimes the training therapists have is not enough to ensure that the emotionally intense experiences of remembering or having flashbacks is titrated adequately. He also underlined the necessity for clients to have plenty of time for processing these therapeutic experiences both in-session, and between sessions in order to anchor any changes that occur.

Newer journalists are becoming more knowledgeable about the effects of exposure to trauma and violence through trainings offered in their journalism programs. There is also an increasing awareness and acceptance of mental health issues in the general public with PTSD becoming a more commonly identified issue that may arise for people in the aftermath of trauma or disaster events. Nonetheless, we see veteran journalists such as Brian (and Cliff Lonsdale--see previous Media Matters column) helping others by talking about their experiences in journalism workshops or conferences, and working in partnership with mental health practitioners to normalize, for less experienced journalists, both the impact of traumatic experiences they may have during assignments, and the decision to seek help when they need professional assistance.

About the Authors

Dr. Patrice Keats is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education (Counselling Psychology program) at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Brian Kelly, is a Montreal-born freelance cameraman who has been based in London, England for over thirty years filming television news and current affairs documentaries.