PTSD 101

Journalists are candidates for Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, an empathic response that affects us, therapists included, when our professional detachment is overwhelmed by certain life events.

Images of dead children leave an indelible mark. Firefighters, who would rather not admit that they have tender feelings, find themselves vulnerable to the haunting memory of a burnt child or the sight of a tiny form in a body bag.

The sheer numbers of unexpected dead, in one place, will penetrate the defenses of hardened rescue workers. Plane crashes rank among the most difficult assignments for American Red Cross workers who normally handle floods, earthquakes and fires. At an air disaster, there is a concentration of death images that few doctors, nurses or ambulance drivers have ever seen.

Writing about journalists covering Rwanda, Roger Rosenblatt mused: "Most journalists react in three stages. In the first stage, when they are young, they respond to atrocities with shock and revulsion and perhaps a twinge of guilty excitement that they are seeing something others will never see: life at its dreadful extremes. In the second stage, the atrocities become familiar and repetitive, and journalists begin to sound like Spiro Agnew: If you have seen one loss of dignity and spirit, you've seen them all. Too many journalists get stuck in this stage. They get bogged down in the routineness of the suffering. Embittered, spiteful and inadequate to their work, they curse out their bosses back home for not according them respect; they hate the people on whom they report. Worst of all, they don't allow themselves to enter the third stage in which everything gets sadder and wiser, worse and strangely better." (The New Republic, June 6, 1994, p. 16)

In one or two decades, PTSD will be universally recognized, de-stigmatized, and well treated. To be dazed at first, then haunted by horrible memories and made anxious and avoidant is to be part of the human family. When deliberate, criminal cruelty is the cause of PTSD, we often neglect the victim and become captives of collective outrage, focusing attention on crime and criminality and those who are to blame.

By discussing PTSD, we disarm PTSD. We do not prevent it, but we minimize its degrading, diminishing effects. We help victims become survivors. We help survivors regain dignity and respect.