July 24, 2020

At the end of last year, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as a result of multiple traumatic experiences in my journalism career and my personal life.

I suspect my experiences may resonate with some colleagues who still suffer in silence.

It’s encouraging to see some news organizations creating safe spaces for more open conversations about mental health and ensuring emotional safety is as much a part of the culture as physical safety. Where they lead, I hope others will start to follow. Unfortunately for now, taboos remain.

I am publicly sharing my journey for the first time to try to tackle some of those taboos and the stigma around mental health that still silences journalists.

Admitting vulnerability can impact career prospects. Individuals who are traditionally marginalized within our industry, including journalists of color, are less likely to feel safe speaking about their suffering, and yet more likely to be at risk of mental stress.

As a profession, we need to see that the structures which perpetuate inequity in our industry often prevent those who are less privileged from feeling safe speaking about the burdens they carry.

Recent years have given rise to a perfect storm of factors impacting the mental health of journalists.

Relentless breaking stories, a rise in attacks against the press, a crisis of trust, job cuts, sinking ad revenues causing stress, burnout, vicarious trauma, moral injury, and exhaustion have taken their toll on the mental health of individuals and the cultural and economical health of our industry. If we aren’t well, we can’t do our best work.

Even before the global pandemic, I heard many anecdotes of colleagues on the brink. Many of them were women, impacted by an industry where they were exposed to gendered attacks in the field, newsroom and online. Others were freelancers affected by job insecurity.

A growing number of studies examining journalists suggest that they experience PTSD at a rate higher than the general population, said clinical psychologist and trauma specialist Kevin Becker. In the U.S., the lifetime prevalence for PTSD is 8%. Studies of journalists exhibiting PTSD range from 4% to a high of 59% (for photojournalists working in conflict zones) depending on conditions, locations and job duties.

More recently, the disproportionate impact on Black communities of COVID-19, followed by the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, has underscored the unique burden carried by Black journalists.

“When you carry around the ongoing collective trauma that Black journalists and journalists of color do, it’s never business as usual,” said Kari Cobham, the senior associate director of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism at the Carter Center. “And existing in workspaces and newsrooms where that isn’t acknowledged by leadership makes it even harder. Black journalists are exhausted.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Vinson described the burden this way: “Black journalists are Black people first. It’s important to understand that the trauma of being a Black person in America is not acute or of the moment, it is a chronic part of the Black experience. It is our nation’s attention to this trauma that is episodic.”

As a white woman at a relatively senior level, I have a degree of privilege that many do not. Even so, this has not been easy to write. My hope is to encourage managers to lead by example, to listen, to show empathy and to communicate. Dealing with stress, trauma and mental ill health can be an isolating experience. I hope to show others they are not alone and that vulnerability can in fact be a strength.

What PTSD looks like

I’ve learned the language of mental health after 20 years in journalism. Yet for a long time, I was in a dark place, hiding my pain. Outwardly, I gave the impression I was coping. After all, I led the International News Safety Institute, a media safety charity that served some of the world’s leading news organizations.

But I was experiencing flashbacks, depression, anxiety, mood swings, nightmares and difficulty sleeping. All symptoms of PTSD.

My flashbacks aren’t always the same, either in cause or in response. Over time, they have become less frequent, but when they occur, my body believes it is reliving one of my traumas. I sweat, my heart pounds, I breathe faster, my chest tightens, my legs want to give way. Often I get an urgent need to go to the bathroom. Afterward, I feel completely drained.

There’s no one thing that triggers my flashbacks. Sudden loud sounds may set me off: fireworks, drilling, cars backfiring, heavy items falling to the floor; smells as well: raw meat, overripe fruit, drains, body odor, certain aftershaves.

At my worst, I had clusters of nightmares in which I was usually trapped. I dreamed of my abusers. I saw the faces of desperate and dying people, individuals I had been unable to save, whose stories I had reported on as a journalist. Sometimes I dreamed of someone I loved being violently attacked. At times when I was too scared to sleep, I self-medicated with antihistamine tablets. They reduced some of the physical symptoms, like itching and bloating, that I suffered as my mental health played havoc with my body as well. I would wake to sweat-soaked sheets: drained, disconnected, foggy-brained. I struggled to concentrate or remember simple instructions. I felt out of sync, like the world and I were spinning on different axes.

Although I ached all over and felt tired much of the time, running provided an escape. At times I exercised to extremes. I lost my libido. At home, where I was safest, I was overbearing, searching for control in at least one part of my life. This impacted those I loved most. I catastrophized simple situations — was terrified my family would have a traffic accident, that I would lose one of my kids. I was anxious, tearful and angry. Some days I wondered if the world would be better off without me.

At work, I was holding it together, but I felt like a fraud.

Many traumas over many years

In my case, I have been diagnosed with complex-PTSD. C-PTSD was recognized by the World Health Organization in 2019, although it’s not officially diagnosed in the U.S. It’s thought to derive from multiple traumas, such as witnessing or reporting on multiple disasters or dangers, or living through an ongoing traumatic experience such as an abusive relationship. I’ve done both.

PTSD symptoms may take years to surface. Mine did. Long after the symptoms first emerged, my instinct was to blame myself as flawed or weak. It’s no surprise because shame is also a common symptom.

The strands of C-PTSD can be difficult to unravel. Separate events can create an interconnected effect, according to Dr. Kevin Becker, the clinical psychologist and trauma specialist.

I was sexually assaulted twice as a young journalist. Both incidents were related to my job. The first was on the eve of my earliest visit to Haiti in 2004, where I traveled several times to report on traumatic stories, including civil unrest, sexual violence  the AIDS crisis, and latterly the earthquake in 2010.

Any of these experiences that made me feel seriously at risk, or in which I saw others in great jeopardy, could have caused my PTSD. Another person might have lived through or witnessed the same trauma without the same reaction. Dr. Becker pointed out that perhaps my experiences also gave me a level of resilience to survive and even thrive.

Whether it results from our professional or personal lives, PTSD is going to impact our work and home lives. One of the other causes of my C-PTSD was a long-term abusive relationship I endured with someone I met through my work. The emotional abuse lasted long after I escaped physically.

It was also one of the reasons I did not get a diagnosis until I was making a recovery. Over many years, my abuser manipulated, gaslit me, and continued to question my stability and my competence as a mother. I was trapped, fearful of the consequences of admitting a diagnosis. Now I know his abuse was one of the causes of my PTSD. Sadly, the mental health toll is seldom recognized as a legacy of domestic violence.

I was also worried about what the admission of vulnerability would do to my career prospects and my reputation.

It’s important to recognize that shame and the fear of repercussions in their professional and personal lives might add to journalists’ ability to seek help or a diagnosis. Then the stakes to wellness may seem too high. We need to create space in our profession for people to feel safe to speak about their experiences.

I’ve seen colleagues self-medicate with drink or drugs, self-sabotage with affairs, bully others, and abuse their power, or push themselves to such extremes that their editorial judgment was impaired.

“We know that trauma can infiltrate every domain of functioning, biological, psychological, social, and spiritual,” Dr. Becker said. “Concentration, emotion dysregulation, memory, trust, relationships, and worldview are all subject to the impacts of the ongoing traumatic exposure experienced by your average journalist.

“Often people find short-term fixes to manage their traumatic distress. These fixes, drug or alcohol use, risk-taking, acting out, before long become problems themselves. They’re no longer fixes, they’re additional problems. So, people end up with both PTSD and the unhealthy strategies they relied on to once manage it.”

In some of my previous places of work, these coping mechanisms were almost regarded as badges of honor, rather than unacceptable behavior with repercussions beyond the individual. And where managers didn’t stop and sanction that behavior, they effectively licensed it.

For a long time, I did not feel safe to talk about my experiences. I recognize the irony of this, having run a media safety organization.

By the time I realized something was really wrong, I was already falling apart. I was at the International Journalism Festival in the Italian city of Perugia, to moderate separate panels on #MeToo and moral injury. Both of these were subjects where I had lived experience and yet I’d not openly discussed why they meant so much to me.

En route to a panel, a colleague warned me she feared I was heading for a crash. She has vast experience of supporting others in the field of mental health and I knew she was right. She urged me to seek help. Later, at a conference dinner convened around the issue of mental health, a colleague and I started discussing our memories of death and disaster. Words flowed like the wine, but by then I was incapable of replacing the cork in the bottle.

That night I had horrific nightmares. The next morning, I could scarcely function. Fortunately, I connected with a clinician friend of mine who encouraged me to find a therapist, and to focus on getting better.

Getting better

Two months later, I accepted I needed to be signed off work. A couple of weeks away from my desk allowed some respite, but no way near what I needed. It did give me the chance though to realize I needed to change many things, not least my job. But as the family breadwinner, I couldn’t afford to simply quit. It took months to find something else with a regular income and less exposure to trauma and stress.

In those few months, I found the words to speak about my sexual assaults for Poynter, and I began to see how my lived experiences had motivated my work. I started writing fiction and creative nonfiction to process my experiences, finding value and catharsis in creating a narrative around my personal trauma.

Confiding in a small number of trusted friends and family members made me realize I was not alone, particularly when I spoke with colleagues who had experienced their own traumas and listened to me without judgment. Therapy was an important part of my recovery, even though it impacted our family finances, and I also ensured I checked in with my doctor regularly. He supported my decision not to take antidepressants after a brief trial made me feel terrible. Running provided an alternative medicine, though there were days when I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.

The week before Christmas last year, I felt ready to accept a diagnosis. By then, I knew my mental illness was not my fault. I also knew I was going to get better, even if my journey won’t always be linear.

I do still struggle — particularly at times of acute stress, as would be expected for anyone who has been through what I have. Over time I have become much better at listening to my body, recognizing stressors and triggers and knowing what to do when things start to spiral.

Since the pandemic, I have recognized that too much time online sets me back. While that’s probably true for most people, it could be regarded as a liability for a journalist. However, since the start of this global health crisis, I have heard many colleagues say the same, worried about the repercussions for their careers if they step away even briefly, rather than their mental health if they don’t.

My recovery has taught me I need to structure my life, recognize where my journalistic responsibilities begin and end, so I can disconnect from work and reconnect with my immediate surroundings. That might mean simply focussing on my breathing, stepping outdoors, going for a run, spending time with my husband and children, or switching off my devices.

Sometimes I worry about the impact of a label. This is mainly because of the legacy of my abuse — but then I remind myself I am not to blame for the traumas I experienced, just as I would not be to blame if someone physically hurt me.

There was a lot of darkness in my inner world for years. Yet, this is a story of hope. While I was circling around my own issues, I was working intensely on safety issues in the profession. I co-authored reports on kidnappings, on the harassment of women journalists, and how the 2015 refugee crisis affected reporters.

This whole process has helped me better recognize when others are struggling. It’s improved my ability to manage my expectations of myself and others’ expectations of me. I am better at saying no when saying yes would be detrimental. I have always been a passionate advocate of journalism safety, mental health and I hope that being open about my lived experiences will underscore the expertise and passion I continue to bring to this conversation.

I didn’t choose to have C-PTSD, and I won’t have it forever. But I am choosing to do something with my experience of it. I hope by sharing my journey, I will encourage others to know they are not alone and help newsrooms consider different ways of supporting their colleagues and themselves.

Because leaders and experts are not immune either. We need to lead with empathy and be role models — setting the tone so others can follow, but this isn’t possible unless we manage our own mental health.

We need to do all we can to make our newsrooms places where people feel safe, heard and recognized, where they don’t have to worry that speaking out will affect their futures. When we succeed in doing that, our industry will be a healthier place in which we journalists will thrive and not struggle to survive.

Hannah Storm is the CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network and a media consultant specializing in gender, mental health and safety. You can reach her on Twitter at @hannahstorm6 

This article was originally published on July 22, 2020.


New Poynter training teaches journalists to better respond to trauma

Poynter is now training journalists to recognize and respond to the impact of exposure to trauma. These custom workshops were developed at the request of The Washington Post.

Journalists are exposed to trauma in a number of settings. Reporters, photographers and videographers in the field witness traumatic events firsthand and spend a lot of time with sources who have been directly impacted by trauma. But secondhand exposure to trauma can also affect your work and home life, said Kevin Becker, a clinical psychologist and trauma expert who teamed up with Poynter faculty to design the training. Editors who supervise frontline staff, video editors and social media specialists also experience vicarious trauma through their work.

The training teaches journalists techniques to minimize direct and indirect exposure to trauma when possible, to recognize the symptoms of trauma-related stress and to build resiliency.If you’d like to bring this training to your newsroom, email partnerships@poynter.org.

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  • This issue is one rarely addressed when I has a working reporter. The attitude was that journalists were akin to ER doctors, police officers and firefighters. You develop a thick skin and learn not to personalize the horrible things you often see up close. I bought into that for most of my career in newspapers and TV. A bridge collapse in Florida that killed 35, a tornado in Texas that wiped out an entire village of farm workers killing more than 30. a flash flood that swept a summer camp bus into a raging river killing 11 children. I covered those and managed to walk away with my sanity intact. Then on 9/11 I stood in the rubble of Ground Zero in NYC, surrounded by body parts and the corpses of too many people. I spent the next several days there, talking to haunted rescue workers, interviewing grieving relatives desperate to find their loved ones. My last live shot before being allowed to go home I was afraid I was going to break down on live TV. I held it together, went home, and tried to cry. I couldn’t. For the next several months I couldn’t sleep and, looking back now, realize I was functioning in a dazed state of mind. I’m a pretty stable person, but I probably should have gotten help. Eventually I got my head around what I’d seen, but to this day I can’t tell people the story of my experience without choking up.