-Sabah Ahmed, Toronto
Photojournalists bring unimaginable events taking place in different parts of the world, right before our eyes. They capture the truth, regardless of how painful it is. Even if they return seemingly unharmed, they often carry emotional baggage. Their content is lauded, but their suffering during the creation process is pushed under the covers. Media outlets in the U.S. and other parts of the world do not provide trauma training to photojournalists. With no workplace support, emotional or financial, photojournalists are left on their own and expected to function their best in a highly volatile environment.
Recently, renowned photojournalist and 9/11 survivor David Handschuh talked with S@Y News about his research that documented the lives of photojournalists who covered death and pain. In this research published in 2003, he found that the photojournalists showed similar patterns of PTSD as in first responders such as firefighters, emergency rescue staff, and police officers.
Photojournalists And Their Unseen Connection To PTSD
PTSD, which stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was first regarded as a mental disorder after being included as a psychiatric problem to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders list in 1980. Its symptoms include witnessing events that may cause harm to oneself or others, feelings of fear and helplessness, flashbacks and dreams related to that event, inability to describe or talk about that event, hyperactivity, or numbness.
In his research, Handschuh surveyed 875 media professionals. The majority of respondents were male staff photojournalists who were still working in the industry. They were asked to state whether the traumatic experience was personal or professional and if they were offered support and counseling at their workplace.
98.5% of the journalists who took the survey reported being exposed to trauma around six times during their work assignments. The most common trauma they covered was stories about fire, murder, and automobile accidents, and the journalists reported automobile accidents as the most stressful assignment among these stories.
While speaking to S@Y New said, David Handschuh said,
"In a survey that I conducted, actually before 9/11, photojournalists are most susceptible to emotional challenges as a result of repeatedly witnessing really bad, very scary things."
Photojournalists also reported that witnessing trauma in their personal lives makes it difficult to overcome emotional pain at work. 90% of the respondents said they had encountered losing a loved one or other traumatic events while working in the field. 6.7% of the survey participants displayed the symptoms of PTSD.
Workplaces Do Not Provide the Needed Support
Not all photojournalists are aware of the psychological impact of their job. Of the 875 respondents, 11% were informed about the mental trauma they would endure in the line of duty, and 34% learned about a physical risk their job entailed. Not sure where to turn to for emotional support, more than 80% of respondents reported talking to their close ones to overcome their trauma. Only 8% sought professional help.
While talking about the lack of support in the U.S. for photojournalists, Handschuh said,
"There is no health insurance in the U.S.; there is no emotional support system in place."
He further added, "It really falls upon journalists to look after other journalists."
The majority of the survey participants were not offered any counseling at their workplace. The Employers of 25% of participants gave them an option to heal from the effects of repeated exposure to trauma. Out of these only, 19% underwent counseling. Out of the few journalists who agreed on taking counseling, 81% reported positive impacts on their mental health.
While discussing the low percentage of photojournalists who seek help, Handschuh said that most of the time, photojournalists are not even aware that they have PTSD. He said,
"The greatest single challenge to journalists' healing is to admit that they were affected by telling the stories that they told."
Despite the high-risk factor in photojournalism, not enough is being done to address trauma in photographers on duty. A survey conducted in 2018 showed that only one journalism school out of 41 provided trauma training to journalists. The number is not encouraging.
Journalists are known for their persistent, somewhat stubborn nature. But behind those steadfast, annoying figures lie human souls that need to express and validate their feelings. Photojournalists never return home unscathed. And media houses need to acknowledge the unseen burden they carry with themselves by providing the much-needed emotional and mental support.