Dealing with trauma and mental health pressures arising from cyber attacks

bySayak DasguptaMay 23, 2024 in Specialized Topics
Drawing of woman sitting in front of a computer with a do not disturb symbol on her phone

Religion, especially the discrimination and persecution experienced by religious minorities, is a hot button issue in South Asia. There are numerous instances of journalists in countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh being harassed, persecuted, assaulted and even killed for reporting on matters involving the rights of religious minorities, crimes committed in the name of religion, opposition to blasphemy laws, and more. 

Although physical violence and legal persecution by authorities is a very real threat to journalists, there is an aspect of their professional lives that is often woefully overlooked: trauma and other mental health pressures caused due to online abuse and attacks. 

When it comes to their digital presence, journalists are in a peculiar position: they need to maintain a public persona on social media, but must also be careful about securing their data, because a breach could put both them and their sources in danger. 

Journalists today are often primary targets of online harassment, trolling, doxxing, hacking and spyware. In addition to abuse from anonymous users online, they are also subject to surveillance, intimidation and persecution by powerful entities like large corporations, legal and local authorities, or the state machinery at large. All of this can exact a severe toll on reporters’ mental health and cause various forms of trauma. 

“We usually tend to think of trauma in journalism only arising out of reporting from conflict zones or highly disturbed or devastated areas, but this is a narrow and limited way of looking at this problem,” said Amrita Tripathi, who is a writer, journalist and founder of the Health Collective. “Trauma can legitimately be caused by reporting on a number of beats including crime, geopolitics, health, malnutrition and more.” 

The regular stresses of the job can cause trauma, noted Kamna Chhibber, who heads mental health for the Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at Fortis Healthcare. Journalists are always expected to be on the go – ready for a story to break at any time, irrespective of whether they are unwell or on holiday. Various aspects of reporting a story can also cause secondary trauma, she added: “You could be covering a health story and constantly witnessing patients in a terrible condition, which can be extremely distressing, or even listening to endless stories of death, injury and devastation can cause secondary trauma.” 

On top of this, the hierarchical structure of many newsrooms can make it hard for reporters to communicate the stresses they are going through to the organization.

Signs of trauma

A critical first step journalists should take with regard to their mental health is to recognize and accept that they can be vulnerable, said Chhibber. Only then can they begin analyzing whether any of their behavior has changed. 

People’s mental health depends on the following:

  • how they think about things, 
  • how they feel about things, and 
  • how they respond to things. 

When people start getting irritable, angry, having outbursts, feeling anxious, nervous, or jittery, this can affect their ability to think rationally, or make them panic.  This may lead to lack of sleep and hunger, social withdrawal and isolation, and cause the afflicted to become overprotective of loved ones. 

In other words, these are red flags that include symptoms affecting people’s social relationships, work life and how they take care of themselves. It’s important to seek help when these signs manifest.

Why online harassment happens

Though it can be difficult, journalists should try not to take online attacks personally or internalize them. The online harassment perpetrators carry out typically has no basis in fact, knowledge or genuine context.

For journalists facing harassment, they can consider logging off their accounts, and reaching out to someone they trust to let them handle their social media for a while. What journalists can control in these situations is how they respond.

“People harass you online because it is easy to reach you and do it anonymously,” said Chhibber. “A lot of the aggression online is actually a large amount of displacement, which means they are taking out the anger and frustration caused by other things in their lives on an easy and suitably distanced target who may not have any effective recourse against them.” 

Boundary setting

Boundaries are very important in social interactions. Journalists may be hesitant to set boundaries at work, however, because they are afraid of professional consequences such as having their position weakened. 

Journalists and newsrooms need to start making their own mental health and well-being a priority over living up to an idea of how they might be perceived in the organization. Some people might be able to work longer hours with more breaks, for instance, while others may prefer to work straight through the day. Both should be fine; a single way of working should never be forced on everyone. 

Chhibber pointed to the example of COVID-19: “The pandemic forced the entire world to rethink how people could work and there was a paradigm shift in terms of working hours, remote working and much more. Putting our own health and well-being first is very important and hence we must all find the courage to draw necessary lines between our work and personal lives.”

Coping techniques 

Given that journalists often operate in high stress environments, it is helpful they know some coping techniques:

  • Take a step back and slow down: Journalists should give themselves a moment to be mindful about their own lives, reflect on what they really want and how to get there. 
  • Build the right kind of social support systems: In an increasingly alienated society where family isn’t always available, journalists need to build better relationships with people in their workspaces. Colleagues can understand the unique challenges they might be facing, and help deal with issues arising there by acting as mentors or guides and creating humorous banter that relieves stress. 
  • Seek professional help: If one’s ability to function has been affected for a couple of weeks and they are unable to make a change they should seek help. With regard to mental health experts provided by your organization, it is important to remember that confidentiality is always sacrosanct. Mental health professionals are only allowed to break confidentiality in case they find that the patient is suicidal or homicidal. Outside of these situations, even if the mental health professional has been provided by an employer, they will never pass on confidential information to management, and if they do people have clear legal rights to claim damages.  

Header photo by Gabrielle Rocha Rios.

This resource is part of a toolkit on religion reporting, produced by IJNet under ICFJ's program, Stemming the Tide of Intolerance: A Network of South Asian Journalists to Promote Religious Freedom.