Share & Connect
Do journalists get post traumatic stress from listening to victims of extreme violence?
Being a journalist in countries where rape is used as a weapon of war is no easy task. Interviewing victims and listening to their most traumatic experiences can have a toll on anyone.
It was the early 1990s, years before the international community would formally recognize that the Guatemalan government used systematic rape on its Mayan women. Victoria Sanford was pursuing an anthropology doctorate at Stanford University. Moved by the stories of her Mayan friends, Sanford joined the non-profit Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Investigative Team and went to Guatemala.
Though the team’s job was to exhume mass graves, Sanford talked to the women, who told other women about her, before she began recording their stories. Sanford joined a team of journalists who interviewed victims across the globe.
The stories of the experiences these women went through are painful, graphic and sad. One girl was raped in a Darfur refugee camp and made an amputee when her assailants tried to kill her by cutting off her arms and legs. The Kosovo women cried, screamed, and let out their rage as they told how soldiers climbed on top of them, choked and beat them, and did things too graphic to explain. The soldiers killed the babies that were the products of the rape in order to further torture these women.
Each interview took hours as the women explained every detail at great length. Some women smothered their own children in order to spare them from the brutality of the soldiers.
Through all the experiences these women told her, Sanford remained silent. She cried with them, hugged them and let them pour their souls. However, the stress began to get to Sanford. She had trouble breathing and sleeping. She couldn’t tell these women to stop telling their stories because the least thing these women could do is explain their experiences in hope that the world would hear.
After a while, Sanford began experiencing secondary trauma. The women she was interviewing called it “susto,” fright sickness.
One morning when Sanford awoke, she was paralyzed. She couldn’t move her neck or sit up. Her body locked up from the stress of the interviews. Psychiatrists explained that she had a temporary psychosomatic paralysis, a rare symptom linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and secondary trauma. Though she got better through treatment, Sanford returned back to interviewing.
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that result in psychological trauma. Some of the symptoms include re-experiencing the original trauma through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, and increased arousal such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger and hyper-vigilance.
The traumas that these journalists face through interviewing are not from their own experiences, but that does not entail that the journalists cannot get PTSD. The paralysis that Sanford endured may be rare, but it shows that anyone can get it by just listening to the tragic experiences the victims explained in detail.
Image Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/53478302@N02/4943573594/sizes/z/in/photostream/