PTSD 101

Journalists and therapists face similar challenges when they realize their subjects are at risk of further injury. Techniques may differ, but objectives are the same: to inform about sources of help. A therapist is not a lawyer or a security consultant, but a battered woman and an abused child need to know that shelters, restraining orders and a network of advocates are available. Therapy includes such referrals.

The reporter is not responsible for individual referrals, but could include sidebars about community resources when covering individuals who typify the kinds of victims who would benefit from such resources. Journalists can also mobilize colleagues in the helping professionals when they come upon problems that appear neglected. Ed Chen, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, called me twice in recent years, not just for quotes about PTSD, but for help with neglected problems.

Ed covered the Gulf War. Before becoming the Dhahran Bureau chief, he interviewed wives of human shields. Many of these women were Middle Eastern and were sent to cities in the United States where they had no family, friends or resources. Their mental health needs were considerable and there was no federal agency equipped to respond. Several acquaintances in the helping professions, inspired in part by Ed's reporting and his requests, established an ad hoc charity, USA Give (Leslie Kern, Ph.D., director). Fifty trauma experts donated free care to 90 individuals.

Ed benefited also. Our network found him a place on the plane when a delegation of "wives of shields" flew to Baghdad to petition Saddam Hussein for the release of their husbands.

Three years later, Ed called again. He was in Oklahoma City, a week after the blast. He told me that even seasoned journalists who covered disasters and tragedies were heartsick, stunned and emotionally traumatized by this assignment.

Perhaps because he arrived a week after the others, he could see the impact on his colleagues who had been there from the start, when there was hope that children would be found alive, when the number of missing was triple that of those certified dead.

Ed's call led to an initiative from Michigan State University's School of Journalism: Trauma specialists and journalism professors who taught courses on victims and the media would meet with members of the press corps who covered Oklahoma City and wanted to reflect on the traumatic stress that they had inherited.