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8 Ways Freelance Journalists Can Practice Self-Care

Whether you’re working in a war zone or reporting on natural disasters, being a journalist means that you’re likely to experience…
8 Ways Freelance Journalists Can Practice Self-Care
RISC trainee Pete Muller is photographing the international military intervention to oust Islamist militants from Northern Mali. Photo credit Paulo Nunes Dos Santos.

Whether you’re working in a war zone or reporting on natural disasters, being a journalist means that you’re likely to experience work-related trauma. Even when you’re not on an assignment, it’s important that you be aware and take care of your physical and psychological health. We spoke to Bruce Shapiro, the Executive Director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Chrissy Heckert, the Deputy Director at RISC, to learn how journalists can take care of themselves before and after being exposed to trauma from reporting.

1. Take emergency medical training courses.

If you’re reporting from a hostile environment or war zone, you should take emergency medical training courses, such as the ones offered by RISC. If possible, you should take courses on recognizing and coping with PTSD as well.

RISC course dates and locations are announced on their Facebook page. Previous trainings have taken place in NYC, London, Kosovo, Nairobi, Kiev, and Turin.

According to Chrissy Heckert, “the RISC course lasts four days and covers basic procedures for saving someone’s life on the battlefield: stopping or slowing bleeding from wounds, clearing air passageways, stopping air leakage into the chest cavity from a chest wound, and transporting the injured person to a medical facility. Surviving a gunshot or shrapnel wound is often a matter of doing the right thing in the first few minutes, and RISC training focuses on that brief, critical period of time. The course also covers travel medicine, including heat — and cold — related dangers, food preparation, and water disinfection. Each of our graduates receives an emergency first aid kit (like those used by medics) to carry with them in the field.”

Photographer Daniel Tepper covering clashes in Hebron earlier this year, well-equipped with helmet, PRESS flak jacket, gas mask and RISC medical kit. Photo credit Julia Ce.

2. Be prepared for difficult assignments.

Before you go into the field for any assignment that could pose harm or last for an extended period of time, assess the risks and create a safety plan in case of physical danger. If you’re going into unknown territory or somewhere that you aren’t fluent in the language, always have a local fixer with you. This will not only help you communicate better, but your fixer will also have a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground.

If you don’t know how long an assignment will last, bring a first-aid kit, extra clothes and food, and any other equipment you may need for yourself or for reporting.

3. Be aware of how trauma may impact you.

Bruce Shapiro says the Dart Center’s believes that “it is essential that psychological safety and resilience be given the same priority as physical safety. Reporters working in crisis zones or hostile environments — whether foreign or domestic — should acquaint themselves with the impact of trauma, have a plan for maintaining resilience, and know where to find help if they need it. Also, it’s important that journalists not stigmatize psychological injury. We need to talk about it. All of the studies of PTSD show that social support is the best predictor of resilience, and isolation is deeply associated with psychological injury. We need to talk about these issues in an ordinary way, just as we talk about other craft matters.”

Trauma can impact both your psychological and physical health, so you should be aware of any changes in your sleep schedule, any signs of PTSD, how to keep yourself physically safe, and more.

4. Get help when you need it.

And if you do notice an impact on your psychological health after reporting in a war zone, seek a counselor or therapist. Isolating yourself and not coping with the issue will make it worse.

Bruce told us that freelancers who need support from a trauma professional can contact the Rory Peck Trust or the Committee to Protect Journalists — both of which can help with referrals and financial assistance.

He said that “in general journalists should know that our tribe is pretty resilient — but that just like soldiers, firefighters, and other professions we can be affected by what we cover. It’s important, during and after assignments involving violence and threat, to attend to any changes that get in the way of our work or personal lives — changes to sleep, concentration, work performance, social connection. Those are usually the first indicators that something may be going on.”

5. Support your peers.

Whether your colleagues need help in the field or when they get home from an assignment, be there to support them. Isolation can make PTSD even worse, while having a support system helps people cope with difficult experiences. And as you support your friends and colleagues, you will create a stronger community that you can rely on for support as well.

6. Join organizations that support journalists.

There are a number of organizations that freelancers can join that support journalists facing difficulties due to their work. Beyond the training and resources that RISC and the Dart Center provide, organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Rory Peck Trust give financial help to freelancers in critical situations. The Frontline Freelance Register is a support network created by freelancers for freelancers. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) offers its freelance members the opportunity to purchase insurance through them as well as lending out bulletproof helmets and vests. These and more have formed the ACOS Alliance to offer resources to journalists, especially freelancers who don’t have the support of a traditional newsroom.

RISC alum Mike Shum filming in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013, with his RISC kit by his side. Photo credit Jonathan Saruk. RISC supports journalists by offering medical training courses.

7. Know when to step away from a story.

Understanding your physical and psychological limits as a freelance journalist is integral to maintaining resilience and your health. If you repeatedly work on stories covering traumatic experiences or even if a particular story begins to take a toll on you, take a break from it. Step away from the story or a particular beat that is impacting you negatively.

8. Find a way to relax.

Even if you’re on a difficult or dangerous assignment, find a way to relax amidst it all. Whether it’s taking time to do an activity you enjoy, or practicing mindfulness as in the video below, find a way to relieve stress.

A workshop on mindfulness practice at the Dart Center, led by teachers from the monastic community founded by poet, author, and activist Thich Nhat Hanh.

What other techniques do you use to practice self-care? Tell us in the comments below!

By D. Simone Kovacs, Writer at Storyhunter