PTSD Threatens the Future of Journalists

Syrian citizen journalists are still coping with the aftermath of the traumas they experienced while covering the war.

(Photo: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [Lance Page/truthout; adapted: Andrew Spratley, Conrad Kuiper, Nathan Barry/ via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0])
(Aleppo, Syria/Gaziantep, Turkey) The posttraumatic stress phenomenon has attracted wide interest between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and the understanding of this pathology was further developed as war experiences piled up. The disorder was given many names at first, such as war neurosis or combat stress reaction. However, in the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) issued in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) introduced the term Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), thus classifying it as a separate type of illness.
War correspondents are among those who suffer from the repercussions of traumatic events such as injuries and arrests; consequently, they are drawn to a tunnel of psychiatric disorders that threatens to end their work.
Hosam Qattan, born in 1993, is a citizen journalist from Aleppo, who was granted a number of international photography awards, the latest of which was the International Academic Forum (IAFOR) award in July 2015. Qattan was shot in the stomach by a regime sniper while reporting in the “as-Shaykh as-Saʿid” front in Aleppo on May 27. Following the incident, he was forced to move to Turkey to receive medical treatment.
Qattan told Good Morning Syria about his injury: “When I was shot, I was overtaken by an insufferable pain, and when I woke up at the hospital in Turkey, I felt traumatised. However, the suffering and the psychological disorders that followed the physical pain had the biggest impact on my personal balance and my relationships with people around me. At that time, I was insomniac… confused… scared of the future… impotent… and I preferred seclusion.”
According to the definition phrased by the Association of the Scientific Medical Societies in Germany (AWMF), which laid out the guideline recommendations to treat PTSD, the posttraumatic stress disorder is an eventual reaction resulting from witnessing one or many painful events such as physical violence. It is the way a human being tries to overcome the trauma and survive life threats. Therefore, according to the AWMF, the disorder is not a manifestation of failure (or deficiency), but rather a healthy response and an appropriate reaction to the event.
Five months after his injury, Qattan still has many questions, qualms and fears. “I live in Turkey now, but I don’t feel quite like myself here as I did in Aleppo. However, I’m afraid of going back: you see, when you’re away from your country for a long time, you tend to see the situation inside Syria from a different perspective. What I mean is that when someone is injured or arrested, he’s the only loser and no one will look for him or support him. I’m waiting for a miracle (to help me find my way),” Qattan said, struggling between his desire to return to work in Aleppo and and his fear of the war.
According to psychologist Ghassan Yaʿcub, the affected individuals might be aware of their trauma symptoms, which aggressively invade their thoughts from time to time, triggering painful feelings and tragic ideas related to the trauma (i.e. nightmares and troubling images) until they are effectively treated. Nonetheless, the treatment is not so simple: Prof. Yaʿcoub noted in fact that the trauma remains undefined and active in the memory, causing a constant alternation between emotional manifestations and their absence, because the cognitive structure cannot absorb them.
Milad Shahabi (25) is a citizen journalist working in photography. The self-declared Islamic State arrested him on 27 December 2013 in his office in the Masakin Hanano neighbourhood, after it seized Aleppo’s main junctions. Shahabi spent 17 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, which was enough to transform all his views on life.
“The beating, the humiliation and the sounds of torture that I used to hear in jail left me in shock, and I still suffer from the repercussions until this very day: I see nightmares and I have developed complexes about Islamist groups and bearded men. When I was released, I left Syria for over one month and a half. When I came back, my friends accompanied me, armed to protect me, because of my fear of being arrested by extremist groups at any time,” said Shahabi, who still lives in Aleppo.
In addition to physical injuries and psychological disorders, reporters are also neglected by the institutions they work for. A great number of  journalists were in fact abandoned after they were injured or arrested by extremist groups. They personally undertake treatment expenses, except for those few who were lucky enough to receive help from media institutions. Similarly, there is no interest in posttraumatic psychological support programmes for citizen journalists.
Another citizen journalist, Pishnik ʿAlo, was shot in the foot by a regime sniper in Aleppo in 2013. Nonetheless, he was completely neglected by the channel he used to work for (Orient TV) and he still suffers from physical and psychological disorders.
Ayah Muhanna is a psychologist who deals with citizen journalists coming from Syria to the Turkish city of Gaziantep. She commented: “Citizen journalists are exposed to trauma the most. They work in documentation, editing and montage, so that they relive the event several times. They do not have enough time to understand what happens to them on the psychological level since they are from the same country they work in.
“Most of the journalists I met told me they had grown accustomed to war circumstances and they don’t have any problem with the scenes they live through. However, as soon as they leave the country and settle somewhere safe for a period of time, they begin to think of what happened to them back in Syria.”
Psychotherapist Muhanna explained that political awareness was also a possible stressor that could affect the journalists psychologically and physically. “Since they are the most capable of analyzing the situation due to their political awareness and because they do not know (…) when they will see their families again or what their future will be like, they show PTSD signs and symptoms which could be psychological (like anxiety, oversleeping and insomnia) or physical (like memory troubles, breathing difficulties and heart diseases),” she added.
The ideator of the Hierarchy of Needs theory, the US psychologist Abraham Maslow, said that security is a basic human need and people prefer a safe environment to a dangerous unpredictable and uncontrollable one. Being in a danger zone might result in impotence or death and many citizen journalists in Syria actually suffer from a state of impotence: as a matter of fact, both Qattan and Shahabi agreed that they were not afraid of death, but rather afraid of impotence and of being unable to continue their work.


“Most of the journalists I met told me they had grown accustomed to war circumstances and they don’t have any problem with the scenes they live through. However, as soon as they leave the country and settle somewhere safe for a period of time, they begin to think of what happened to them back in Syria.”