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Psychological trauma, the silent monster eating journalists

Health & Science - By Rosa Agutu | October 7th 2020 at 09:31:00 GMT +0300

The field of journalism just like any other has its ups and downs, and in most cases, the downs are trauma-related. The hidden form of trauma is known as vicarious trauma, Indirect trauma, or Secondary Traumatic Stress.

Journalists can experience symptoms of distress if exposed to indirect distressing material, similar to those one would experience if they had been there physically.

Some journalists are exposed to difficult or disturbing stories and images second-hand. After interviewing people who’ve survived traumatic experiences, the death of a person who just got interviewed or relieving the trauma by reporting it, they can suffer vicarious trauma.

Graham Kajilwa, one of The Standard Group’s Health and Science reporter recalls his experiences while reporting the Njambini plane crash that happened in June 2018. All the ten passengers who were aboard the Fly SAX plane perished in the Aberdares.

“The Njambini plane crash was very traumatic, I had to interview the families of the victims, I could indirectly feel their pain. Also, journalists and other first responders were stationed at an assembly point where the remains were to be received. I could hear the rescuers say that they’d found the hands or legs and were looking for the head or other body parts. Such experiences are very disturbing.”

Graham, explains that he had to relive the trauma all over while writing the story.

“I had to describe the graphic image while writing the story.” He says. “It was even harder when the story was published and our readers complained about the traumatic details, and I felt like the trauma just escalated to another level.”

Graham says that he had the same experience while reporting the Moi Girls High School fire.

“I viewed the remains of those students while at Chiromo mortuary. I was shaken.”

Faith Kutere, a Radio Maisha correspondent in Uasin Gishu County talks about the grief of losing the people you just interviewed.

“This job has its perks, but the downside can hit you so hard that you forget about the perks.” She says. “I had two stories where the people I interviewed died before the story aired. As much as deep down I knew that there was nothing I could’ve done, I was broken.”

Kutere, says that it takes her a while before getting back to her normal routine and talking to fellow journalists who have gone through similar or worse experiences has been one of her coping mechanisms.

“Most times it’s hard for me to sleep, and at such moments I avoid solitude by trying to spend time with people close to me or watch movies until late so that my sleeping hours are reduced to prevent the nightmares. But talking to my colleagues has been quite helpful.”

Such vicarious trauma also plays a big part when making otherwise everyday life decisions. A person reporting cases of children being sexually assaulted will have a hard time trusting people with their child.

Hussein Mohammed the head of the Investigative desk at KTN News says he got annoyed every time he saw people wasting food or when a tap was left running after he interviewed a father who hadn’t fed his children for days and had not offered them a drop of water to quench their thirst following one of the worst droughts experienced in the country.

“I never thought the story was going to affect me that much but I felt the depth of it when I became easily upset when people were wasting water or food.” He says.

“We also covered the Kapedo bandit attack, where 21 police officers were murdered in cold blood.” Hussein adds, “we saw the bodies and relived the attack indirectly while interviewing two officers who survived.”

Hussein says that while he does his stories to perfection, when we get home it hits really hard and he has to struggle with nightmares and anxiety. He recalls one other experience while covering the Garissa University terror attack in 2015 that claimed 148 lives.

“We arrived at the university before the bodies were transported to the mortuary, we got in one of the classrooms with police officers, there were bodies and blood all over. Then allover a sudden there was movement on a pile of around seven bodies. A girl stood, she had blood all over her body and it seemed like her brain was about to fall. The police officers fled and left us alone with the girl. When she came closer we realized the blood wasn’t hers and neither was the brain. It is such traumatic experiences that make it so hard to cope or carry on with our daily activities when we go back home.”

Apart from vicarious trauma, direct trauma has also caused distress to a good number of journalists. According to Dr. Chitayi Murabula a psychiatrist, trauma is any painful experience that a person goes through that renders them helpless whether it is physical or psychological.

“Journalists by virtue of their work are often in situations where they could be exposed to danger themselves or witnessing something traumatic. Most times journalists do not have resources to intervene and this causes them trauma which can lead to mental illness or the relapse of an already existing mental illness.” Chitayi explains.

Hussein, Graham, and Kutere agree on one thing, that if journalists do not talk about these traumatic experiences or seek professional help all these emotions will pile up and explode when they least expect, a sentiment echoed by Dr. Murabula who recommends that all media houses should have in-house psychologists.

“These solutions should be discussed within the context of workplace safety measures because psychological injuries are often ignored while they can be very disabling. Depression is the second most disabling condition in the world. It’s very easy to be compensated for physical injuries than psychological trauma and this is something organizations should look into.” Concludes Dr. Murabula

However, the Media Council of Kenya has hosted several trainings on ways journalists can cope with trauma.

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