Philip Grey served in Iraq starting in 2003. He now reports for The Leaf Chronicle and experiences mild Post-Traumatic Disorder (PTSD). He compares his symptoms to a low-level toothache; there is no way of getting rid of it, but his life can continue.
Last November 16, Grey attended Common Ground: A Workshop for the Media and the Military. The daylong event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. focused on PTSD.
According to sponsor’s website, the University of Kansas, the conference featured medical professionals, military officials and journalists as panelists.
Attendance was recommended for journalists who cover combat, their editors, and health care reporters.
Hearing journalists speak about their own PTSD struck Grey in particular. It was a side to the issue he hadn’t heard before.
“Some of the journalists there said things like when they walked in to the newsroom they felt noconnection to the people who hadn’t experienced what they experienced,” he said. “They felt there were stories they just didn’t want to do. There were places they just didn’t want to go.”
He noticed similarities between this attitude and the mindset that he, and other military veterans grappled with assimilating back into daily life after returning home from combat. He calls it “the battle of coming home.”
“I’ve heard the same thing from people in the military who come back,” he said. “And you knowexperience the same thing. You are suddenly in a world where everything that other people think are important, those things aren’t important to you anymore.”
According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, between 86% and 100% of journalists witness trauma while reporting in the field. Up to 28% of journalists experience some form of PTSD.
PTSD Media Consultants refers to journalists as “first responders.” Even those who are not in war zones witness traumatic events like fires, car accidents, murders and natural disaster. Coverage of any of these events may lead to PTSD.
“It’s tough, particularly for foreign correspondents,” said Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
“They’re far from home and they’re often working in countries where there may not be psychiatric services,” he said. “And so it becomes very difficult for them to receive local help.”
Feinstein said resources for journalists dealing with stress are much more readily available than they were ten years ago when he conducted a study with the American Journal of Psychiatry that found war journalists who experienced symptoms of PTSD were no more likely to receive help than journalists who experienced no symptoms.
He attributes his findings to a lack of communication that existed ten years ago. Larger news sites are only now beginning to mend, because they are starting to recognize that war can scar journalists not only on the outside, but inside, too.
In order to facilitate communication, responsible news organizations are beginning to partner with Employee Assistance Programs, which offer confidential consultation and therapy for employees and loved ones dealing with issues including stress.
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can respond very well to therapy,” Feinstein said. “It is something that can be dealt with.”
It is just a matter of making available the right kinds of treatment and opening the lines of communication, Feinstein said.
Admitting to PTSD is still difficult for journalists like Grey who cannot help but compare their own experience reporting to that of the people directly involved in the trauma.
“As a journalist, what are you going to do,” he asked, rhetorically. “Are you going to talk about your feelings of being traumatized with the soldiers you are there reporting on?”
Feinstein maintained that it is the responsibility of news organizations to provide resources for journalists asking questions like these. One such resource that news organizations are distributing to their journalists is the confidential link to a self-assessment questionnaire developed by Feinstein.
“It’s a very useful way for journalists who are far from home to get a quick check on their mental well being.”
The questionnaire focuses on PTSD as well as depression, substance abuse and general psychological wellbeing. An algorithm calculates whether the journalist’s responses indicate cause for concern and based on the results, whether or not it would be in their best interest to seek psychological or medical attention. All collected information is strictly confidential.
Feinstein stressed that his assessment is “not supposed to be comprehensive” and that “face to face contact is preferable.”
Personal communication, however, does not limit itself to talking with medical professionals. Norwegian journalist, Paul Refsdal, who has embedded with insurgent troops in foreign conflict, said it is important to find a community with other journalists, who have also covered trauma.
“When you come back, no one really understands what you are talking about,” he said. “So I really don’t talk with people about what I have done, unless they ask me.”
Refsdal expressed difficulty in finding community among Norwegian war correspondents who he calls “hotel-room journalists.” He said lacks a sense of common experience with them.
“I’ve always been the one who’s different in the Norwegian press corps,” Refsdal said.
Refsdal has embedded himself in foreign conflicts with insurgent troops for 28 years. In 2010, while reporting with a unit in the Taliban, he was kidnapped. The Taliban released him after six days.
Refsdal said he was not scared at first, because he knew the kidnappers from his embedment; however fear struck when there were negotiations about selling him to an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell, where he knew he would die.
“I’m a little bit of a control freak,” he said. “I have the impression that I was kind of controlling my own kidnapping in a way. I don’t like these things when they are in motion and you can’t do anything.”
Although Refsdal reported that he has never experienced symptoms of PTSD, he did say that after embedding with rebels in Chechnya, he noticed an “instinctive” reaction to the sound of planes overhead.
Refsdal said his job and its danger affects his family, particularly his daughter, more so than it impacts him.
“I have to bribe my daughter every time I go to a dangerous zone.”
Refsdal said that talking to reporters about his experience is easier, because he doesn’t think he has PTSD or any other psychological damage.
“If I had, I’m not sure I would have shared with people at all.”
For a freelancer like Refsdal, those sentiments could be dangerous, according to Feinstein, who has noticed that smaller news outlets and freelancers do not receive the same resources or awareness about PTSD as larger organizations do. Feinstein’s advice for freelancers is simple.
“They better look after themselves.”
Some experts believe changing the name from PTSD to PTSI, Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, will remove the stigma that comes with the word “disorder.”
More journalists, they argue, would come forth about their problems. The American Psychiatric Association is considering the change for its newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
To Feinstein, however, debating the official diagnostic name for PTSD is irrelevant.
“You can call it a disorder,” he said. “You can call it an injury. You can have long discussions about what to name it, but at the end of the day, you are going to be dealing with the exact same thing.”
Grey believes the blanket term PTSD is incorrect. Instead, people should talk about post-traumatic stress in general.
“[PTSD] wrongly paints this as a common situation of people being dysfunctional to a point of being either a danger to themselves or the people around them,” he said. “That’s not common.”
In terms of long-term treatment for PTSD, Dr. Feinstein mentioned that a pill might help weaken symptoms and severity, but he stressed it’s very far down the road.
“It will be years before such a pill is ready,” he said.
Dr. Jelena Radulovic, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, was the senior author of a study looking into the development of such a pill.
Radulovic and her colleagues wanted to isolate the triggers that made people with PTSD so overly alert and sensitive to stimuli. They centered their focus on the hippocampus, the part of the brain where signals are fired to create new memories. They hypothesized that traumatic events affect the switch in the hippocampus that generally turns off these signals.
In experiments, Radulovic wanted to see if the signals could be switched off and manipulated chemically. She tested the pill on mice by exposing them to trauma—confinement, followed by slight shocks.
After this, scientists administered chemicals to the mice, and after several hours, the subjects acted normally.
The pill, which has yet to go through clinical trials, functions in such a way that would keep memory in tact, but would remove the excessive response after the fact. She expects the pill will be ready in three years time.
Radulovic stressed that the pill would not cure PTSD.
“For people who already have the disease it’s very unlikely to work,” she said. “It’s very useful if it’s taken in the phase between the traumatic event and the development of the disease.”
Radulovic said it is a tough situation because people would be taking medication when they feel fine.
News organizations have improved over the last decade in providing their journalists with resources to help combat post-traumatic stress symptoms. But there is still room to improve. Feinstein said the key lies in education. With increased awareness of the emotional health risks journalists face in the field, policy can change organizationally.
“To try to change the attitude,” Feinstein said, “there is nothing better than education.”
Conferences such as the recent workshop hosted by the University of Kansas might do the trick, said Grey, who had never attended a discussion about PTSD in journalists before. The communication fostered therein and the information disclosed allowed for an open dialogue about a tricky issue. And Grey, who described PTSD as “a very alone feeling,” found a community of common experience at the conference.
“I almost wish it would have been two days instead of one,” he said.