Mental health problems and post-traumatic stress is an issue most often attributed to members of the military and veterans. However, there are also other industries that operate in developing and conflict-affected regions that are just as susceptible to mental health issues. Journalists and NGO workers often face a cumulative effect from the nature of their work and the environment in which they are operating.
In late 2014 I was in and out of Northern Iraq providing logistics and security services to our media clients. During August that year, a large group of Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq, were trapped and surrounded by ISIS on Mount Sinjar. There was no food or water and no respite from the sweltering temperatures. Children and the elderly were dying of thirst and hunger.
The journalist crew I accompanied interviewed multiple families and survivors at an IDP camp in Dohuk who had escaped Mount Sinjar and their harrowing stories stay with me to this day. One woman, in particular, had lost her husband, her brother, and one of her children. She had fresh scars on her hands and arms, and when queried about the cause of the wounds she started crying, and our translator started crying too… She had cut herself so her children could drink her blood to prevent them from dying of thirst.
I will admit, this story affected me for some time and it also affected the crew. These types of stories, unfortunately, aren’t uncommon and continual and prolonged exposure to these kinds of stressors can have a significant adverse effect on a person’s mental health if not dealt with effectively.
It is essential to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress and mental health issues, not just for yourself but your colleagues. From the Committee to Protect Journalists; Stress is a normal reaction to abnormal events. Signs of stress are often subtle. A journalist may seem more anxious, irritable, withdrawn, numb, depressed, sad, or angry, and the emotions may be either sustained or fluctuating. Physical symptoms can include sleep or eating disorders, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, panic attacks, headaches, nausea, and chest pain. Strained personal and work relationships are often common. So is alcohol or drug abuse. Other signs may include an abnormally intense focus on one’s work, as if one is trying, as with other compulsive behaviours, to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
In my experience, talking about your experiences with your colleagues and those who went through the same or similar experiences is the best way to prevent mental health issues arising. It removes the stigma that mental health is a weakness and it gives you the confidence that you are not alone.
Staff working in developing countries and conflict zones often don’t have a great deal of time to themselves, but it is important to take a minute every now and again to assess yourself and talk to your colleagues with whom you spend the majority of your time. Who knows, it may be just the thing they need to open up too.
If you ever need to speak to anyone about mental health or any other subject, reach out to friends, colleagues, family, or even me. I would be happy to take emails or calls from anyone who needs assistance. My contact details can be found on LinkedIn or www.gmriskgroup.com
Look after yourselves and each other.
Shannon Sedgwick | Chief Executive Officer