August 19, 2021

Throughout her career, licensed clinical psychologist Stephanie A. Sacks has committed to working with people who are underserved, including those without access to resources or who have chronic mental illness. So when she heard about a new program from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma that would connect trained therapists to help journalists work through trauma, Sacks felt compelled to help.

“What I came to learn about journalists, which makes me also conceptualize journalists in some ways as underserved, is the lack of information and preparation for the reality that it’s a career where it’s an occupational hazard to experience trauma,” Sacks said. “It’s not something that’s really spoken about openly in programs in school, or typically in journalistic institutions, or in the media rooms.”

Another reason: The coronavirus pandemic also caused Sacks to feel indebted to journalists.

“They have been the entry point and the way that I felt connected to the rest of the world during the lockdown and during when we were as isolated as we could possibly be,” said Sacks, who is based in Florida and is also the founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of the Palm Beaches in Boca Raton.

Earlier this year, the Dart Center announced a new program called the Journalist Trauma Support Network. The network, a collaboration between the center and the Committee to Protect Journalists, trains experienced and seasoned therapists to help provide culturally competent care to journalists.

The pilot program is being directed by Emily Sachs, a clinical psychologist licensed in California and New York. Sachs said she’s been interested in the mental health of journalists for a long time. Her background includes working at the Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture, with refugees, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, at an inner-city family clinic, as well as conducting research at immigration detention centers.

“And in every setting that I was in, I noticed that there were journalists covering the stories, trying to bring light to human rights and environmental and political issues,” Sachs said. “I just developed this huge amount of respect for these professionals, but also noticed that they’re not paid well, there’s not a lot of infrastructure behind some of them, and that they’re the only group in these settings that have no dedicated services.”

The Dart Center says journalists frequently bear witness to human suffering and are sometimes the direct targets of violence. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event. Shock and denial are typical responses, and longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.

Journalists, Sachs said, are not immune to trauma. She began educating herself about journalism culture and occupational stressors and challenges, and eventually connected with the Dart Center. Sachs said she and the center began teaming up to conduct training sessions for journalism organizations and journalist support organizations.

That led to questions from several people about a list of therapists who understand trauma and are trained to work with journalists. There was no such list, Sachs said, and building one was going to be difficult because it’s what she described as an incredibly small specialty. She said therapists didn’t have the cultural competency.

“Before we were able to recommend clinicians, we really had a capacity problem — that there weren’t enough psychologists educated in cultural competency and understanding the occupational hazards and challenges of this very unique group,” Sachs said. “The same way that it’s necessary to learn about military culture and occupational structures, it became clear that that was necessary for this group, too.”

That’s when Sachs said she spoke to the Dart Center about the idea for a program that would train clinicians with expertise in trauma to help journalists.

“(The Journalist Trauma Support Network) was really conceived of as an education in training program for psychologists, and that’s what we have now — is a pilot program of 22 experienced trauma psychologists who we have now trained to work with journalists, and continue to train,” Sachs said. “Then we partnered with the Committee to Protect Journalists to help with the referral pathway.”

The first cohort of psychologists — found through Sachs’ and the Dart Center’s networks — underwent training earlier this year and have committed to seeing a maximum of two journalists at a time for six months. They are compensated for their services, but the sessions are free for journalists. The program is able to continue compensating therapists for an additional six months, up to April 30, 2022.

Sacks, the licensed clinical psychologist from Florida, said she previously gained some insight into working with photojournalists at a Veterans Affairs hospital. She learned a lot from the Journalist Trauma Support Network training, which Sacks said broadened the scope to all journalists.

Sacks observed some overlap between the journalism industry and those in law and emergency room doctors.

“It’s almost a right of passage to have terrible work-life balance, and I think that’s something that — because of the very nature of the work — is a bit of an uphill battle just to establish, ‘How do you really take care of yourself in a reasonable way?’” she said. “If you want to have longevity in any industry, especially one where you’re exposed to trauma after trauma after stressor after challenge after demand, and you’re juggling a family and all these other things, it’s really a tough culture and there can be messaging around almost glorifying that from the top down in ways that aren’t really helpful.”

Lea Didion, a Washington, D.C.-based licensed clinical psychologist who owns a solo private practice and co-owns a group private practice (both focused on PTSD and trauma work), is also part of this cohort and said the program was an opportunity for her to serve another underserved population that has valiantly put themselves in traumatic situations in order to do good.

Being in the pilot program so far has helped open Didion’s eyes to the attacks on journalists, as well as the claims of misinformation by some audience members.

“Because I’m not a journalist and I’m not in that field, it’s been something that I’ve had some ignorant bliss around, but certainly in the last four years — with the accusations of misinformation and fake news — I have definitely observed and seen just how under fire journalists are, and how much mistrust has been perpetrated around journalists, I think unfairly so,” Didion said.

Didion said one of the most striking aspects of the training she and others underwent was learning about the deep commitment many journalists have to doing good. It’s something that resonated with the psychologist as it relates to her work.

“I think the other piece that really stuck out to me that I hadn’t been as aware of … is how vulnerable journalists are or can be, especially with so much information on the internet. You can so easily find people’s addresses or their homes,” Didion said. “It was just staggering to me how brutal some of the attacks (were) that journalists have experienced from readers or from people who didn’t like or didn’t believe what was being reported. That was staggering and really impactful to hear about.”

Didion said her goal through this program is the same as with any individuals who have been traumatized: to provide a space for them to open up and talk about what is needed.

“Even in my brief work with journalists so far, I have heard them say ‘I’m not usually the one who is being asked the questions. I’m usually the one asking the questions.’ Which, again, is something I can really relate to, being a therapist: I am usually the one asking the questions, not being asked,” she said. “I think there’s so much power in having a safe space to talk about the things that weigh on us.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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