Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Subscribers Section User ID Password
Journalists and post-traumatic stress disorder
Jenny Manrique
Send a comment Print this page

One Colombian psychologist treats shaken journalists suffering from work-related stress disorders.

Colombian psychologist Marta Chinchilla has read the story of Omayra Sánchez many times. The 13-year-old’s tragic death was captured by video cameras after a 1985 avalanche following the eruption of the nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano that wiped the Andean town of Armero off the face of the earth.

Chinchilla wonders what journalist Germán Santamaría felt each night when he had to imagine Omayra in the pool of mud and concrete which trapped her after the avalanche, to write about her story. Rescue works scooped bucket after bucket of mud from around Omayra, but she died — still trapped in a tangle of debris — from hypothermia three days later.

"Would he feel powerless or have someone to talk to? What can journalists who have small children feel when they have to cover bloodcurdling events that involve children? Almost no one thinks about that," asks Chinchilla, who for eight years has treated journalists suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after covering natural disasters or war.

Chinchilla trained for this type of therapy in the United States, where she became a member of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a resource and training center for journalists, teachers and others interested in the connection between work-trauma in journalists.

Advice from the Dart Center has been heeded by newspapers such as the The Oklahoman during the coverage of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; by The New York Times following the coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and many other media outlets.

In Australia, Canada and Great Britain, among other countries, psychotherapists provide support to war correspondents for large news outlets.

Vocational stress

"For almost two decades, they have taught how to provide emotional support to a journalist before and after they cover catastrophic events; how to treat victims, what kind of photograph to take; what kinds of questions to ask, how to prepare interviewees, and how to write articles that help to ease, not worsen, the [victims’] pain," explained Chinchilla.

In 2003, Sergio Arboleda University in Bogota sponsored her to found Resiliencia, or "Resilience" in English, an emotional support center for journalists affected by post-traumatic stress disorder in Colombia. Covering the country’s internal armed conflict has made these journalists eye witnesses of grief and violence, and also into the news itself as they suffer threats and persecution for doing their jobs.

Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. During the first four months of 2006, nine journalists decided to leave their jobs after being harassed by armed groups. Five journalists received death threats in this period, and Gustavo Rojas Gabalo of the Radio Panzenú radio station in Cordoba, was attacked by "demobilized" paramilitary soldiers Feb. 4. He died March 20, according to the Bogota-based Press Freedom Foundation.

A 2004 Resiliencia psychological study of 60 journalists from different Colombian provinces, found that these reporters were highly susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They are journalists without faith in humanity, with a sensation of permanent insecurity, their hope completely truncated, and the only thing they want is to be invisible because they feel that everyone wants to assault them," says Chinchilla. "They have nightmares, panic attacks, paranoia; they are constantly reliving events that impacted them."

One Colombian journalist threatened by paramilitaries who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she suffered "repeated nightmares" in which she was attacked in front of her loved ones, and no one did anything to stop it. "My paranoia in the streets is so uncontrollable that I run away when anyone looks at me or walks close to me. It’s difficult to recover my confidence," she said.

Resiliencia provides personal support to journalists and editors. The institution organizes workshops to help journalists manage the sources of post-traumatic stress disorder, and advises media outlets on how to emotionally handle witnesses to violent attacks.

"We have to dispel the myth that the journalist that exposes himself to everything and does not feel anything is a ‘super macho’ and that if he or she thinks about his or her mental health then he or she is a coward," Chinchilla said.

The shock of violence

"It’s not true that people become accustomed to violence. What that exposure produces is disassociation and even though it would seem not to have any effect, in one’s personal life, they could drink, take drugs, or have dysfunctional relationships," she added.

Chinchilla says that some of the journalists who attend her workshops ask to speak with her privately because they are too afraid of sounding weak in front of the others to talk about their experiences. But she laments the fact that despite making some headway with these journalists, in the majority of cases, they find that they don’t have job protection.

"I have a journalist who had to move to Bogota because of threats she received, and she has spent years here in complete poverty with no job, no house, no work…" Chinchilla said. "Even though she recovered emotionally, these events destroyed her work life."

Chinchilla says that the most rewarding part of her job is "being able to help journalists recover their mental peace, that they can smile again, walk in the street without fear, and that they know that what is happening to them is not mental weakness."

Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
Reproduction of our information is permitted if the source is cited.
Contact us: (511) 460 5517
Address: Comandante Gustavo Jiménez 480, Magdalena del Mar, Lima 17, Perú
Email: webcoal@comunicacionesaliadas.org

Internal Mail: https://mail.noticiasaliadas.org
This website is updated every week.