Are You Trauma Aware?

31st May, 2011

© Funkay Productionz

Search for the excellent YouTube video, “The Five Stages Of A Giraffe in Quicksand”

Trauma sells, it dominates the news. We read about it every day, images of trauma bombard us through every media outlet. But what happens when the photographer becomes traumatised?

Following our last branch meeting Dealing with Trauma, myself and Branch Secretary Jason Parkinson were invited to a Trauma Retreat, hosted by the Dart Centre in Whitby. We had previously been part of a Dart round table discussion with journalists who had covered the revolution in Egypt, sharing the experiences in covering the uprisings in the Middle East with a view to working more safely in the future.

Despite the high volume of traumatic work carried out by journalists and photojournalists, we rarely give ourselves the time to sit down and to take full stock of the material we are handling. Taking the time to do this is important, because it is the first stage in arming ourselves with the tools and techniques that we can use to protect ourselves and our colleagues. The question is a dual one: what can we do to make ourselves both more resilient and at the same time produce more insightful work?

Talking about trauma in this way, during the weekend in Whitby was intense and demanding. We looked at situations journalists are confronted with when covering stories about trauma victims. While most of us bear up extremely well in instantly stressful situations, and deal as well as we can when listening to the harrowing accounts of survivors, it was clear that long-term exposure can have an accumulative impact on those documenting traumatic events.

We heard many harrowing accounts from the journalists, both staff and freelance, working for a variety of media outlets who have covered war, public order, or stories involving children which presented ethical dilemmas and emotional challenges. We also covered specific issues for female journalists and sexual violence.

One of the issues we explored in detail was Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD). A lot of mythology surrounds the condition, but it is clearly a danger for people working around violence and trauma, just as it is for the victims whose lives we are documenting. As photojournalists we are often in the thick of it and right in the frontline. And nobody, however experienced they are or strong they appear to be on the surface, is necessarily immune from the toxic effects of working on this kind of material.

Some talked about feeling like a “trauma sponge” others about the “toxic buildup” associated with their work. And these responses are common in journalists who don’t go onto develop a clinical condition like PTSD.

So what we can do to look after ourselves and our colleagues?

Our mental wellbeing is as important as our physical health as journalists. We were taught by psychotherapists and industry professionals how to recognise the signs of trauma trouble in our colleagues: short temper, panic, lack of sleep, flashbacks, irritation, anger, lack of concentration, nightmares.

Traumatic stress still has an impact, even when PTSD as a clinical condition is not suspected.  There are a number of simple things we can do to reduce the pressure level. We were given practical methods to relieve stress, aerobic exercise is very good, as is meditation and breathing techniques. Healthy eating and a balance of vitamins also helps your body process stress, as is trying to maintain a regular sleep pattern.

Finding help is important, especially if somebody suspects they may have developed PTSD.  Sometimes people may worry that admitting they are not coping well might derail their work and make it less likely they’ll be employed. The truth is that doing nothing about a condition, which responds well to treatment, is more likely to have a devastating impact on the relationships around you and your work.

A supportive network of colleagues can be a great help, many of us go for the obligatory post assignment trip to the pub which can be very useful in sharing experiences and allowing the brain to start processing the memories.

Some media organisations have set up peer support groups which pair up journalists. We heard from the Australian Broadcasting corporation (ABC) who have done this very successfully, especially coping with the devastating forest fires. (Another group of Australian journalists trained by the Dart Centre even provided peer support to their colleagues in Samoa after the 2009 Tsunami  –  a wonderful gesture of solidarity)

Even if it is just a friendly voice on the end of the line, or a text asking if you are ok when you are away on a job helps. We are thinking of running a similar scheme through LPB. Many of our members are freelancers, but others who are attached to news organisations or publications are also unsupported.

Media professionals are very resilient – it is the nature of the job. But some maybe in denial, others feel embarrassed, inadequate or that they wont get work again if they talk about their situations. But negative responses to stressful situations are a natural human reactions and the down time needs to be factored into any workflow.

We are exploring with the Dart Centre a new initiative to provide photojournalists with relevant training. This is mostly about learning to listen and deal with stress and will be on an informal basis. It will provide us with the skills and care needed to be more resilient. It will give us the tools to help our colleagues, referring them to health Pro’s if necessary. We’re trying to create a trauma aware culture for us as journalists and how we cover events. Also making our editors more away of the effects of work overloads, deadlines, organisational pressures, logistics in the field.

Setting up a peer-support programme for journalists is going to take time and some careful planning to get right. If that sounds interesting and you’d like to contribute to that discussion, please get in touch.

© Jess Hurd

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