From: Alice Taylor
Covering Crises: Managing Journalists Post Traumatic Stress and Reducing the Stigma

The second in a two-part series. You can read part 1 here.

Journalists working in Albania have had a tough time over the last seven months. The devastating and deadly 26 November earthquake that claimed 51 lives saw many working long hours on the front line, witnessing death and destruction, living and working in fear, and sustaining damage, and in one case, the total destruction of their homes.

Then, just months later, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the country to its knees as the Albanian government enacted some of the harshest lockdown measures in Europe. Journalists reporting on the situation while trying to remain calm, and take care of their income, families, and health, continued to suffer.

Exit spoke to a number of journalists who described feelings of anxiety, stress, and even depression, stemming from their coverage of two disasters in half a year.

One of the biggest risks to journalists covering traumatic, stressful, or upsetting stories, as well as living through them themselves, is PTSD.

Lediona Braho, a clinical psychologist at Mental Health Albania explained that some 80-100% of journalists are exposed to a work-related traumatic event. Many more experience repeated exposure, especially in the case of the earthquake and pandemics. These factors, she said, can create a risk for long-term psychological issues such as PTSD that can take months, or even years to materialise.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that is triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying, or traumatic event. In the case of COVID-19 and the earthquake, many Albanian journalists have both witnessed and personally experienced the fall out of these events.

Symptoms include intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in mood, and changes in emotional and physical reactions. Those suffering from PTSD can experience flashbacks, upsetting dreams, or nightmares, as well as physical reactions such as palpitations and sweating when the event is recalled.

Many, Lediona said, will simply try to avoid thinking about or acknowledging the event or its trauma. This can result in memory issues, negative thinking, relationship issues, insomnia, detachment, and angry outbursts. Individuals dealing with this condition are also more likely to turn to alcohol or drugs to manage their emotions.

One male journalist who spoke to Exit on condition of anonymity explained that covering these stories has severely impacted his life.

“My post earthquake period was marked by sadness, while the COVID-19 one was marked by full-blown anxiety and panic,” he said.

“I had daily panic tracks for more than two months until I saw a psychiatrist and got medication that I will take for one year. I am regularly seeing a therapist and have completely changed my life because of this situation.”

He now works remotely and avoids almost all face-to-face interaction with members of the public.

“COVID has completely changed my daily life and my personal and professional relations. I have reduced to maximum meetings with people and going out.”

When asked why he became so panicked about COVID-19, he explained that the government’s management of the situation was panic-inducing. This, combined with the lack of information from the government, and what information there is, is tightly controlled and impossible to double-check, led to an increase in his anxiety.

Already stressed and saddened from the trauma of the earthquake, the insecurity and unknown consequences of the pandemic was just too much to bear.

“The biggest difference was the feeling of insecurity in facing something that is known, while the earthquake situation was something unknown – you never know if and when it may strike. The panic-mongering media campaign by the government, particularly by the prime minister in the case of COVID of the main factor to trigger my panic,” he told Exit.

Lediona adds that many Albanian journalists have been “systematically exposed to a great amount of risk to their wellbeing”. This she said, means they need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of PTSD so they can take care of their mental health and well-being. 

Another journalist with the initials E.K said that she believes she is suffering a delayed reaction to the earthquake and pandemic.

“For months I just focussed on work- working hard, being accurate, powering through and also protecting myself. Now, I feel like I am collapsing from the inside out!”

She explained that she is suffering from anxiety, nightmares, and mood swings that she believes are caused by the immense pressure of working through two natural disasters.

“I feel like I absorbed the emotions and pain of those around me- the people I interviewed, my friends with COVID, those who have lost their homes and jobs and now I am carrying it all.”

Denisa Ndreka, a psychotherapist and psychologist said that vicarious trauma- brought about by an accumulation of stress due to empathetic engagement and exposure to trauma, along with secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue, need to be identified and treated.

“Part of the journalist’s job is to work in the front line for most of the things happening around the world every day. All of this has the potential to cause great mental distress. In the trauma field, vicarious trauma is a phenomenon that is known among frontline professionals including mental health professionals, social workers, medical staff, journalists etc.”

Denisa said there are a number of ways this can be preempted. Firstly, journalists need to be aware of the risks and the symptoms of such conditions. This way, the emergence of any mental health issues can be managed quickly before they become exacerbated. Secondly, she advises finding a support network of family, friends, and colleagues to confide in.

“Rely on people you feel supported and heard. You are not alone, your colleges are going through similar things as you, and opening up may be very helpful,” she said.

Both Lediona and Denisa said that it’s also important to know when to step back and take a break. If this is not possible, Denisa advises making the best of the off-duty time by avoiding the news, emails, and the TV or mobile. Instead, journalists should try and engage in something relaxing and non-work-related such as socialising, mindfulness or sports.

She explains that mental health services are available for free via local health centres, but due to stigma around mental health, some may be hesitant to access them.

“People who experience psychological issues may feel judged, perceived as weak, or in work context perceived as incompetent of doing their job. In my experience, the majority of people who ask professional help, choose to share this decision with few or none of the people around them. The sufferance many times goes unspoken and alone, which on the other hand may not be helping the healing process.,” Denisa told Exit.

While the issue of journalists’ mental health is one that is rarely considered, from speaking to a number of journalists and professionals in Albania, it is clear the issue is present. Each journalist interviewed knew of colleagues that suffered from anxiety, stress, depression, or had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

The anonymous male journalist told us that his employer had offered their full support both personally and professionally. He was able to choose the working conditions that allowed him to manage his situation. Additionally, he suggested that sharing stories amongst colleagues could be a good way of understanding that we are not alone.

Edona Haklaj, a journalist with Fax News told Exit that she thinks the government should be providing support to journalists reporting on the crisis. 

“We need emotional and financial support from our employers but we need financial plans from the government as well to support the media in these kinds of crises.” 

Denisa adds that some companies, now recognising the need, have a psychologist on call. 

“Employers need to know that suffering is human. Psychological issues are very common and can affect any of us- it doesn’t make someone less professional or less competent in their job. Taking care of employees means taking care of your business and product.”