Why mental health support for journalists and newsrooms in Ukraine is critical

by Katerina Sergatskova
Mar 27, 2024 in Specialized Topics
Yellow fields beneath a blue sky

Ukraine’s population has been living at war for more than 10 years, and two of them were marked by a full-scale invasion that has resulted in dozens of thousands of deaths, mass displacement, and occupation of a third of the country’s territory, so far. Thousands of journalists and editors are going through the same challenges as the population they are serving and experiencing extra pressure because of the higher social responsibilities and stress coming from trauma-related reporting.

The scale of the problem is enormous. According to the World Health Organization and Ukraine's Ministry of Health, between 10 and 14 million Ukrainians require psychological support, with many showing symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as of May 2023. Beyond the official figures, the need may be even greater.

A 2022 survey by the Lviv Media Forum, a local media-focused organization, revealed that 36% of Ukrainian newsrooms considered psychological assistance a top necessity. Despite the readiness of international bodies to provide counseling, as reported by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma to the Global Forum for Media Development's informational group, there's uncertainty about the efficacy and appropriateness of different support formats. Ukraine also faces a critical shortage of professionals trained to offer psychological aid to journalists exposed to trauma in hostile settings.

Journalists are exposed to trauma more than other professionals. They sometimes have to go through traumatic events again and again if the reporting requires it. Visual reporters are especially at risk because they must look through the material with traumatic events dozens or hundreds of times to edit and publish it.

Every time 2402 Foundation conducts safety training in Ukraine, we talk with journalists and editors about the risks they take to report on war-related issues and how they mitigate them. This is the essential part of any safety training because if you are not aware of the risks, you may find yourself in the middle of the frontline in panic trying to unpack a tourniquet to put on an injured leg. And it happens very often.

We also ask our trainees about the state of their mental health. This is not official research, yet the insights are telling: one in two media workers acknowledges having panic attacks, signs of depression, burn-out, or all of it. While there is no foreseeable end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, trauma-related psychotherapy seems not to make much sense because people continue living in a traumatic environment. At the same time, there is an understanding that we do not have enough well-trained therapists who could handle this number of broken journalists.

The corrosive stress of conflict zones not only threatens individual well-being but also compromises the integrity of journalistic output. It is not easy to do impartial journalism in your own country while rockets and drones fly every day onto your streets, and the Kremlin terrorizes the world with nuclear threats - though it is not impossible. But to do so, journalists must be able to manage their emotions and make informed decisions because the final product appears before the eyes of a largely traumatized and anxious audience, which, also due to mental health problems, finds it more difficult to distinguish the lie from the truth or honesty from conspiracy.

Information has become such a powerful tool that it can shape entire countries’ decision-making in the very short term. It is clear that the truth became a weapon and a military goal, and journalists became one of the most desirable targets. Because of that, so many journalists died in Ukraine at the beginning of the invasion in 2022 and in the Gaza Strip in 2023-24. Because of that, the WSJ’s correspondent Evan Gershkovich was jailed in Moscow, as well as many Russian and Belarusian journalists ended up in prison in the last couple of years. Even more Ukrainian journalists left the profession because they could not stand the pressure and many went to serve in the army.

Online harassment also became much more visible. Prominent journalists across the globe are being attacked by trolls, politicians, and public figures for doing their jobs. The war only reinforced this trend since these attacks proved effective in silencing critical voices, while social media networks are not willing to change their algorithms and safety protocols, and newsrooms struggle to develop the right tools to resist attacks.

The lack of tailored editorial policies and a culture of safety results in self-censorship and withdrawal from public and/or professional life. Mental health issues that are not dealt with often lead to destructive behavior, lack of empathy, re-traumatization, and distrust in communities.

The scale of the problem is so enormous we need extraordinary solutions as soon as possible. Together with my team and prominent experts from across the globe, we are designing a mental health program for journalists and newsrooms in Ukraine, aimed at helping them tackle the issues of prolonged stress, burn-out, hate attacks, and trauma. The goal is to equip them with practical tools and knowledge, on an individual level, and create a safety culture on an organizational level. This initiative is a leap towards democratizing access to world-class standards in mental health safety.

What can be done?

I believe that we, as a community of media professionals, must develop new habits. Handling mental health issues is not a personal responsibility. During such a big crisis that we are currently in, globally, it becomes a humanitarian need. And since it is so important, everyone should get appropriate training, like fire marshals or first aiders do.

Organizations such as the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, Headlines Network, ACOS Alliance, CPJ, ICFJ, IWMF, and many others have already come a long way in researching and managing mental health in the media sphere. It is now the media's turn to take the best examples of research and experience, apply them to their work, and spread the word about these challenges and possible solutions to their audiences. Self-help groups, peer support networks, training, and raising the standards of safety culture have already shown healing effects.

We cannot stop the problem, but we can contain its effect. We can put it on our to-do lists and treat it like a routine and, therefore, normalize it.

This article was originally published on Journalism.co.uk and republished on IJNet with permission. 

Katerina Sergatskova is a journalist and editor working in hostile environments. For more than 20 years, she has been covering controversial issues like human rights violations, war, and terrorism in the Eastern European region. At the onset of the invasion in Ukraine, she co-founded 2402 Foundation, a non-profit initiative dedicated to providing journalists and civil society actors with essential personal protection gear and safety training. Its mission is to equip people with the skills necessary to survive and protect themselves during this exceptionally challenging period.

Photo by Olga Subach on Unsplash.