We are the observers. We bear witness to society’s worst outcomes: dead bodies, mangled cars, weeping family members.
The scale may be smaller than the horrific scenes of war American service members witness overseas. Yet journalists covering local tragedies are at risk of developing PTSD, too. I would submit photojournalists are particularly at-risk because they get sent out on everything. And as the years go by, all that trauma witnessing can literally affect our brain’s sense of well-being.
Which reminds me, this is a brain issue. Not a “toughness” issue. Not a “you’ve lost your objectivity” issue. You have no need to feel guilty.
Unfortunately, news executives do a poor job of proactively warning journalists they send out into the field about the emotional dangers of the job. In a study of photojournalists who witness trauma, only 11% had been told of the emotional toll the job can take, while only one in four photographers had been offered counseling.
A chief photographer I once worked with joked about needing to take a “mental health day” every so often instead of a sick day. There may be times when you need to take a “mental health day,” too. How open you are with your manager about the exact reason you’re not coming into the newsroom is up to you. As sad as it is, “I have the flu” is often greeted with more sympathy and understanding than “I have the blues.”
I can’t imagine not needing some time off after covering the 9-year-old Chicago boy investigators believe was lured into an alley and shot to death by a gang. But if you’re expected to keep following a story day after day and don’t feel right about asking for time off, debriefing is the most basic thing you can do for yourself.
Debriefing is simply talking with another journalist or manager about what it was like to cover this senseless murder — or similar stories. And it’s a must. You can do it in the darkness of the live truck on the way back to the station, inside the news director’s office with the door closed, or over a beer at your favorite bar.
If you’re too shy, debrief in your journal. I would advise against debriefing on Facebook, however, because people who don’t know our world are going to make some pretty stupid comments under your post that’ll make you feel worse.
Over time, having covered so many of these stories, you may notice you never feel “right.”
You may be easily startled. You might dream about the traumatic event. And with all the negative emotions and anxious feelings seeming to never fully leave your body, you may become so angry you explode at co-workers.
That last one is what usually gets my attention, especially if the journalist lashes-out over something trivial. What is he really angry about? I ask myself. How many years has he been shooting/reporting? What types of stories?
The person might have PTSD. It goes so much deeper than the blues, too. Rather than feeling down for a couple of days, the symptoms of PTSD last a month or more.
Then it’s time to ask your family doctor if she’d recommend a therapist trained to help PTSD sufferers. You might also search your station’s website or archives to see which mental health experts your staff has put on-the-air for PTSD segments. See who the local newspaper has interviewed, too.
The Anxiety and Depression Society of America also has this handy therapist search tool.
It’s time to really take care of yourself. If you don’t like the first therapist you go to, try another one. But make sure you get the help you deserve. Your sense of who you are and your relationships are depending on it.
Matthew Nordin is a weekend anchor/reporter at WSIL-TV in southern Illinois. He is currently making the transition from broadcast journalism to the mental health field. Feel free to reach out to him on Twitter: @MatthewNordin