A higher percentage of journalists in Mexico suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than among correspondents who covered the conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia, Chechnya or Rwanda. But the Mexican government, the health authorities and even media outlets themselves still aren’t taking measures to protect reporters.
By Pilar Porral
“We’re all suffering from insomnia, nightmares or muscle pain. Our initial response was to have a few drinks. We didn’t realise that liquor wouldn’t make the pain go away”, says Pedro Tonantzin, a journalist for Grupo Imagen which specialises in reporting on organised crime.
Tonantzin began suffering from PTSD four years ago when the gangs launched a wave of bloody attacks against families in the state of Morelos. “They would enter homes, knock down the doors, carry out massacres and kidnap people. They broke the rules. They no longer respected women or children.”
The reporter explains that when specialists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) diagnosed a group of journalists as having PTSD, none of them knew what it was. “It was only then that we discovered that what we were experiencing corresponded with the symptoms of trauma”, says Tonantzin.
According to the journalist, the police weren’t able to deal with the gangs, so the reporters “started working at night to cover the violence and protect the families”. Those events remain etched in his brain “like pictures”.
Corpses hanging from bridges
UNAM psychologist Verónica Reyes Pérez recalls a speech by a photographer who said that he had always wanted to win the National Photography Award. “He was one of the first photographers to take pictures of corpses hanging from a bridge. They awarded him the prize for a picture he would rather forget.”
According to researcher Rogelio Flores Morales, PTSD occurs when trauma “provokes a cluster of symptoms”. Victims are unable to get rid of a series of images in their head, so they try to forget them, by avoiding contact with places or situations which remind them of the trauma. That’s when “the nightmares, insomnia, irritability and some somatic complaints appear”.
“In the sample of 240 journalists we used for our study, we discovered that 41% of the journalists and 54% of the photographers suffered from PTSD”, explains the manager of Proceso magazine. This is an extremely high figure, he adds, given that in other countries such as the United States, Canada, Japan and Finland PTSD figures among journalists vary between 3% and 28%. According to Flores, “the figure of 28% was found among war correspondents who covered the Middle East, Bosnia, Chechnya or Rwanda”.
To try to deal with these situations, Pedro Tonantzin has taken refuge in religion. “I don’t think it’s enough, but it’s helped me a lot because it’s made me understand that there are things that are not in our hands. We, as reporters, have to report them to make sure they’re not ignored. We’re convinced that the worst thing that could happen is that there is silence”.
Ignoring the problem
According to the reporter, “up until now, our employers haven’t done anything about our symptoms. They say it’s a health problem we reporters face and it’s linked to our work.”
Rogelio Flores, the researcher, thinks that the media “should establish a pool of psychologists to assist journalists who are at risk”.
According to the Proceso manager, despite the high levels of PTSD, local and national institutions as well as the health authorities “are doing absolutely nothing”.
“The reporters aren’t asking for help”, says Flores. “That’s the huge tragedy. Even though they are displaying symptoms, there’s no way of getting them to seek help.”
Among the measures needed to prevent long-term damage and avoid high-levels of PTSD, Rogelio Flores suggests that the government introduce a medical insurance policy that guarantees psychological assistance. He believes that “the horrible conditions in which journalists work and their low salaries” makes them vulnerable.