National Defense Magazine Managing Editor Sean Carberry shared his experience as an international correspondent covering war-torn countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and how it affected his mental health at the “Conflict Reporting and Mental Health” breakout session.
Frequently being exposed to traumatic events, such as shootings, is a risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It says journalists who tend to spend long periods in war zones are also affected. The more time they spend in a country, the more they are exposed to trauma.
Following the events of 9/11, Carberry—who was working at WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston—would speak with journalists reporting in Afghanistan. Hearing from the correspondents ignited something in him, he said.
“It was a surge of feeling of what can I do?” Carberry said. “For me, the thought of doing that journalism out there is something that spoke to me, and I felt, okay, I need to get out there and do that.”
Without international reporting experience, Carberry jumped into uncharted territory when he began his career abroad as a correspondent. He recalls one of his first trips to Sudan. He was detained at gunpoint and spent an hour being interrogated for taking a picture too close to the U.S. Embassy.
Over time, as he worked in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, he not only took notice of the physical dangers of the work journalists face but also the psychological impacts too.
Journalists who cover war zones or traumatic events often go through hostile environment training. Carberry says it tends to cover how journalists handle physical situations like what to do when they are kidnapped or how to recognize if they’re in a minefield.
“I never heard anything about psychological, emotional, mental aspects of the work,” he said. “Nothing about how you process this stuff.”
He mentioned how journalists don’t tend to talk about the experiences they go through and instead, depend on substances such as alcohol and prescription drugs.
Carberry said most times, these reporters don’t know how bad their job has impacted them mentally until much later. It wasn’t until he sat down to write his book, “Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home” and COVID-19, that he realized the impact his job had on him.
He thinks a lot of news organizations have begun to realize the importance of mental health issues reporters face because of COVID-19 and have started to take more action, but there is still a long way to go.
“This is a collective, long-term effort of raising the awareness around this, turning up the noise, putting more pressure on organizations,” Carberry said. “First and foremost, if nothing else, just take care of yourself.”