Pakistan: Psychological counseling for journalists

Journalists in Pakistan often suffer emotional problems resulting from traumatic stories they cover or stressful work environments. Counseling is rarely available but two new trauma centres are aiming to change this.

The two new trauma centres were launched in early 2018 with support from DW Akademie. The Karachi centre, run by the Centre for Excellence in Journalism, as well as the Quetta centre, run by the non-governmental organization Individualland, offer journalists and other media workers free professional counseling. The partner organizations also educate media outlets about trauma and the need to prepare journalists for traumatic encounters.

Media | 13.03.2019

The Well-being Centre's motto: Dealing with the long-term effects of the traumas that journalists in Pakistan often experience during their work.

DW Akademie spoke with Dr. Asha Bedar, the Karachi centre's clinical psychologist, and Mahim Maher, a journalist and the Karachi centre's project manager, to learn more about their approach.

DW Akademie: What sort of traumatic situations do journalists in Pakistan encounter?

Mahim Maher: I've spent 18 years in newsrooms and have found that while there are clear-cut cases of physical trauma, it's the psychological trauma and chronic stress that are the bigger, more frequent issues. The extreme pressure to do a job well in an environment where you don't know who will be offended by what you say, write, tweet or post is a special kind of chronic stress. Threats or the fear of being threatened for their part have a psychological impact.

Dr. Asha Bedar: The work-related trauma that my clients have experienced include reporting on stories that relate to violence, terrorism, and child sexual abuse including rape. Some have also faced threats, intimidation and physical violence as a direct result of the sensitive issues they have covered. Journalists' work, performance and general well-being is also affected by factors such as deadlines, work hours, low or delayed salaries, high levels of competition and constant exposure to news. While some reporters have sustained physical injuries on the job, for most the impact has been largely emotional – anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, low self-esteem, and difficulties in relationships or substance abuse.  

Are specific groups of journalists especially vulnerable?

Maher: Young, new journalists are vulnerable because they don't know the terrain in which we operate and don't know where the red lines are. Newsrooms don't train them and seniors are often stingy in terms of mentoring. The young journalists I know are chafing at the bit to report but can put themselves at risk. Others vulnerable include TV out-station reporters who are often unpaid stringers; district correspondents in rural areas who are often at the mercy of influential landlords who, in turn, often wield great power within the police force; and women journalists and minority reporters.

Mahim Maher is a journalist and the Karachi centre's project manager.

Bedar: The most vulnerable journalists in my group are reporters who have been on the scene when violent incidents occurred, or those covering specific abuses such as child rape or murder and who are in contact with the families. Women, of course, experience another level of vulnerability in terms of sexual harassment and discrimination at the workplace.

How are journalists in Pakistan prepared for potentially traumatizing situations?

Maher: No one really prepares you for this. Our overall understanding of trauma is rather weak. I've had reporters who go out on a limb, put themselves at great risk and years later marvel at how naïve they were. We all realize that we've walked into situations blind because we just didn't know any better.

How do you conduct your counseling sessions?

Maher: Karachi's Well-being Centre is located at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism. Clients can come once a week and receive 50 minute counseling sessions – as many as they need – with our psychologist. We also have a psychiatrist if they need prescriptions.

Bedar: My approach is largely client-centred and the pace and direction of the session is led primarily by the client. My main role is to listen, ask questions from time to time, to support clients in thinking and working through their difficulties, to discuss and suggest coping strategies, and to support the client in practicing and mastering healthy and effective ways of coping both psychologically and in terms of behavior.  

How have journalists and media workers reacted to the trauma centers?

Bedar: There has been a very good response in terms of acceptability and need. There are, however, some logistical issues, such as location, that need to be sorted out for better access and consistency.

Dr. Asha Bedar the Karachi centre's clinical psychologist.

You also visit media houses and offer awareness sessions for management staff. Why is that?

Bedar: Mental health issue remains one of the least understood and most stigmatized issues in Pakistan's health sector. These tours help break the taboo by providing information on mental health and counseling. The sessions also promote our service.

Maher: We need to get the word out to newsrooms because journalists need to feel comfortable in approaching us. We also have to ensure that the non-newsroom media workers – such as truck operators and cameramen – also know that they can get help. Our sessions have shown that when I, as a senior journalist, tell my personal story about depression, they realize it's ok to say they are struggling.

What should all editors-in-chief, managers and media owners know about the psychological predicaments of journalistic work in Pakistan?


Bedar: My key message to management is to recognize that mental health is real and that their staff is vulnerable to mental and emotional difficulties. It is also well established that mental health issues, if untreated, have an impact on work relationships, functioning and productivity. Journalists can be supported by having systems in place that allow for emotional safety and wellbeing, such as counselling services, support groups, quiet rooms or shared work. This is a small investment compared to the cost of untreated mental health issues. 

How can media houses protect their journalists?

Maher: Media houses don't protect their journalists and aren't always interested in doing so. Journalists are seen as a dime a dozen and disposable. If media houses can't protect their journalists, journalists should at least be able to protect themselves. Media outlets should give them the proper gear, and have Standard Operating Procedures for risky fieldwork. They should also pay them on time because this is a huge stress factor.

How do you see your centre developing?

Bedar: We hope to continue this project into next year and beyond. We're also planning to develop audiovisual, psycho-educational resources for journalists.