By Peter Townson
Dinah van Altena has worked with nearly 120 journalists who have had to deal with psychological issues as a result of their work
Stigma associated to psychological treatment in Kenya means that journalists are rarely prepared for the traumatic experiences to which they are exposed
Journalists are regularly expected to place themselves in the line of danger to get the latest story, record the most exciting footage or take the most enthralling photograph. This often results in physical violence and many journalists suffer a variety of injuries because of carrying out their work.
Similarly, as a result of difficult and trying experiences, many media workers are exposed to events which have a psychological effect on them.
The harm that this causes cannot be as easily and tangibly measured, yet the results can be just as devastating. In Nairobi, Dinah van Altena is a counselling psychologist and trauma therapist at the dial-a-counsellor clinic. Doha Centre for Media Freedom has worked with Dinah to provide post-trauma counselling to a number of journalists, and here she talks about working with members of the media and the importance of raising awareness of psychological issues.
“This cannot affect us”
Dinah is not a psychiatrist and is keen to make the distinction between her work and psychiatric treatment. While she provides training and counselling, she does not prescribe any medicine for patients but can refer them for psychiatric treatment if needed.
She has treated journalists who have undergone a huge variety of experiences, from sexual harassment to torture, from witnessing traumatic events to dealing with community issues related to political developments.
While her work is not confined to members of the media, she has now worked with 116 journalists from across Kenya.
“What is different when working with journalists is usually this feeling of “this cannot affect us” so it usually takes a longer time to deal with issues of awareness and realising that it does not mean you are a bad journalist or you are weak if you are experiencing any psychological issues,” she tells DCMF.
“It has a lot to do with their survival instinct and most of them feel that if they let themselves experience any emotions related to the work they will not be able to carry on as journalists – that has been the main hindrance and barrier for them to accept what they go through and to seek help.”
Another aspect of working with journalists is related to the topics they cover. Certain issues take on added significance because of reporters’ personal experiences, and this can often lead to serious issues.
“When a journalist has been through something in their own personal life, and then suddenly they are covering a similar topic – that is usually the most crushing thing for most journalists,” she says, “now their own trauma is being projected in the story that they are covering.”
Preparation and counselling
“The first thing I do is education, explaining what my role as a psychologist is and the main components of psychology and what is generally, worldwide expected to affect journalists. This can help prevent the journalists from going on the defensive and rejecting any treatment.”
Dinah’s work takes place at two levels: advocacy through media houses and the provision of practical skills.
“Outlets have to be sensitive that journalists are human beings and they have to provide them with sufficient resources to help and support them – especially security-wise.”
“I give journalists some practical skills: when you are in the middle of covering something extremely traumatic, what thoughts are going through the mind and how you can help the thought process to cope, and also, what kind of exercises you can do to neutralise stress, to remove it from the system and handle it in the future.”
Dinah notes that she has to keep an open mind and adopt a “multicultural approach” to her work, as people from different backgrounds hold a range of ideas about how they must go through a healing process.
With many differing beliefs about treatment, medicine and general healthcare, Dinah recognises the need to cooperate with these ideas as much as possible.
While she works according to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), she tries to operate within the framework of others’ traditional beliefs when they can work in tandem.
“Generally through society seeking psychological support makes people feel that you are much weaker,” explains Dinah, adding “when you put your hand on fire it will burn – it doesn’t matter if you are a journalist, a doctor or anyone else.”
Because of the stigma attached and traditional taboos about mental issues, people often only approach Dinah for help when things have become extreme and they require psychiatric treatment.
“Unfortunately it is too late and the patient will need medication,” she noted. However, after they have begun treatment, Dinah can still work with them to identify and address the underlying causes behind a particular response.
The difficulties of elections
The elections of 2009 resulted in a swathe of conflict across the country, which prompted dial-a-counsellor to take on an increased number of doctors in preparation for recent elections in 2012. However, the elections took place in relative peace.
“There was not much violence in terms of physical violence, but there was a lot of emotional tension,” notes Dinah.
“I jokingly saying that we have become hostages of peace,” she says, adding that there was a general atmosphere in which people were stopped from discussing their concerns.
“When there is physical violence people feel much freer and open to seek help as they feel that everyone has seen what happened, but because the violence was not seen, people are not open to seeking help,” adds Dinah.
Dominic, a journalist who DCMF sponsored through trauma counselling, explained how treatment helped him to deal with the horrendous violence he witnessed during the Tana River massacre in 2012.
“The counselling actually made me realise that I was suffering trauma from what I had seen in my line of work but unconsciously I bury it away only for it to resurface later,” he said, adding “I am now able to handle trauma better.”
“It has helped because now I realise that I have been burying my problems within instead of dealing with them right away,” he added.
“Unfortunately, there is stigma associated with visiting and many journalists would be reluctant to openly seek psychological treatment,” he said. Despite these taboos, Dominic noted that he would definitely recommend his colleagues pursue psychological training and treatment to try and ensure that they do not suffer from problems in the future.
Dinah believes that continuous training on psychological issues is essential for journalists, and is something which needs to be addressed by media outlets and editors.
“There should be consistent awareness sessions to let them know that it is normal to experience psychological difficulties in the course of their work,” she argues, adding “there is a lack of support from editors and there are numerous complaints about them – they are interested in results and not how you get them.”
Despite the difficulties, the fact that journalists have their profession to relate to their experiences helps to bring clarity to issues which are often particularly difficult to sort through.
“I’ve dealt a lot with cases of torture and people who have been tortured by the state find it very difficult to construct major meaning and their role, whereas with journalists we know that it is down to their work,” she notes.
“Just knowing that someone can help in the extreme cases is really great and something which is very much appreciated.”