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Coping in Crisis

Mental health check-ins needed after workplace tragedies

Experts say journalism in itself can be a form of therapy for reporters who must tell the truth of their trauma, or the trauma of their communities.

The Capital Gazette reporters Pat Furgurson, center, and Chase Cook hug at a makeshift office in a parking garage of a mall in Annapolis, Md., during coverage of the fatal shootings that happened in their paper's newsroom on June 28, 2018. | Thalia Juarez/The Baltimore Sun via AP

Journalists at the Capital Gazette suffered a horrific tragedy. A gunman took five lives in an attack that left the community of Annapolis, Maryland traumatized.

Another community is still reverberating with post-traumatic stress. Shaken, journalists in newsrooms across the country tuned in as news reports came in from the shooting.

Then we were in awe. The next day, the Capital Gazette — mourning five colleagues — put out a damn paper.

Can journalism in itself be a form of therapy for reporters who must tell the truth of their trauma, or the trauma of their communities?

“Absolutely,” said Sonali Gupta, a psychotherapist in Chicago whose specialties include trauma and PTSD. “If the response is communal.”

For journalists around the country, sending their support to the mourning Annapolis newsroom — many have donated to the GoFundMe — there was a communal experience. While reporters and editors were putting together their coverage of the shooting, there were some anxiety-filled expectations that the attack was part of growing anti-media sentiment.

“It’s very different for journalists now,” said Jinnie Cristerna, a clinical hypnotherapist in Chicago. “When you have this kind of climate, it’s almost exacerbated. And one of the things that people struggle with for sometime is how do I reconcile that with what I get up everyday to do.”

RELATED EDITORIAL: At the Capital Gazette, the gun violence we report on hits home

For journalists, or others, who might have anxiety in the workplace about safety, here are some pieces of advice from these two mental health experts.

The first step, Cristerna said, is for journalists to come back to their purpose.

“Why am I doing what I’m doing? Having a sense of purpose really does alleviate that fear that takes you away,” she said. “When you’re distracted, you’re scared, so that’s when you become very reactive and sensitive. That doesn’t mean you ignore threats, you still respond to them in a responsible way.”

Cristerna’s advice to newsroom managers is simple — provide mental health resources, whether that means bringing in a therapist to hold a workshop on coping or providing employees access to individual therapy needs.

“Understanding that trauma, even if it doesn’t happen to you, witnessing that, being associated with that, it’s also a traumatic event,” she said. “Especially of you are a target, or more likely target of a violent act. Having a therapist to just process what that means to you, there’s no shortcut. Find a good therapist.”

Gupta advises journalists to check in with themselves as they go about their day-to-day roles to understand what kinds of work might be mentally triggering.

“Identify what your triggers are, what stories might trigger you what your signs of stress are — and that’s very individualized,” Gupta said. “You might find that you get headaches or you don’t sleep well or you start having bad dreams, overeating.”

Recognizing psychological triggers is one step, however. The next is to find a positive coping mechanism.

“Across the board, we know that social support, having strong connections is one of the key ways to stay healthy,” Gupta said. Some negative coping mechanisms to avoid include overeating, alcohol use, cigarette use and drug use.

“If you’re spiritual, find time for your spiritual practice. Being out in nature, engaging in something creative,” are examples of positive coping mechanisms.

For newsroom managers, steps might be taken after an incident to reassure employees of security.

Gupta, who travels internationally for humanitarian work, said she often studies risks and prepares safety protocols beforehand. She advises journalists to take a similar approach, and to examine the safety protocols in their workplaces.

“Do you have a system in your workplace where you’re flagging the level of threat in the communications you receive?” she asked. “The other thing to keep in mind is that the idea of safety varies. A man, a white man, is going to be safer than a woman of color. Ask your employees, what is going to help you feel safe?”