Trauma haunts journalists, human rights workers in Myanmar

Journalists and rights workers bearing witness to Myanmar violence report suffering depression, anxiety and survivor’s guilt.

Illustration by JC of an eye with a reflection in it of a woman wearing a protective vest with Press written on it. The woman is facing soldiers detaining a person.
Experts say journalists may experience anger, difficulty concentrating, a sense of helplessness, and exhaustion as a result of witnessing others' trauma [Illustration/ JC/ Al Jazeera]

May Yin, a journalist with a local media outlet in Myanmar, has had a traumatic year reporting on the aftermath of the February 1, 2021, military coup.

First, she covered pro-democracy protests in Mandalay, where the military shot dozens of people dead. Since May, she has been reporting on a rising armed resistance movement and the military’s efforts to suppress it by attacking entire communities with tactics including mass killings and the burning of villages.

“There is a lot of breaking news to report, so I haven’t been able to take a day off,” May Yin told Al Jazeera in January. “This whole month, I feel like I am in hell. My stress level is very high.”

Studies have shown that reporting on conflict and crisis can have serious effects on journalists’ mental health. It is not only the effect from the disturbing events that they witness, but also from secondary or vicarious trauma, which includes viewing photos or videos of traumatic incidents or speaking to survivors.

According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia University Journalism School, journalists may experience anger, difficulty concentrating, a sense of helplessness, and exhaustion as a result of witnessing trauma. They may also experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, including sleeplessness, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts.

Erin Smith, CEO of the Dart Centre Asia Pacific, told Al Jazeera that in addition to the experience of covering harrowing events involving human suffering, factors including the workload and demands associated with journalism can heighten vulnerability.

“When you’re regularly exposed to death and destruction and constantly dealing with the pressure of deadlines … you are definitely a candidate for either primary or vicarious trauma,” she said.

People killed ‘right in front of me’

May Yin, who is in her mid 20s and began working as a journalist in 2015, was in the streets of Mandalay within days of the coup, photographing and taking video footage of protests that drew tens of thousands of people.

On February 15, 2021, military forces started firing rubber bullets, using slingshots against the protesters and beating them up; they also went after journalists who had filmed the crackdown. May Yin escaped into a nearby house just in time to witness them catch another journalist, beat him and destroy his camera.

Five days later, military forces fired live rounds into a crowd of protesters. May Yin was standing near sixteen-year-old Wai Yan Tun, the first teenage victim of the coup, when he was shot in the head.

“When people got killed in the crackdowns in Mandalay, most of the incidents happened right in front of me,” she said.

Illustration by JC of a woman huddled alone in the dark with pages floating in the air around her and the silhouette of a soldier against the wall.
[Illustration/ JC/ Al Jazeera]

One night in March, a white car pulled up to the apartment where May Yin was hiding. She is still haunted by the sound of soldiers shouting and kicking her door before driving away.

By April, she had mostly stopped reporting on the ground due to the risks; she is now moving from apartment to apartment to avoid arrest while reporting by phone and occasionally going out undercover.

The pace and intensity of the news have given her little chance to cope with a year of cumulative trauma. She is constantly on alert for the sound of soldiers and struggles to fall asleep before 4 am, even though she often takes relaxation pills and sleeping pills. She says she is easily irritated and suffers from depression and poor appetite.

“Sometimes I feel better, and then I conduct an interview and I get angry and frustrated again,” she said. “My daily life has become very rough. When I leave the house, I am not optimistic anymore.”

May Yin is one of three people Al Jazeera spoke to about their work documenting human rights abuses in Myanmar since the coup. They preferred not to share their real names due to fear of retaliation.

They said that experiences with trauma and secondary trauma have seriously affected their mental health, but that they cannot rest because of the continuously unfolding events. A commitment to their work and a feeling that they are making a positive effect has kept them going in spite of these challenges.

‘My first shock’

Lei Lei, a pseudonym for a journalist with another local media outlet, was covering a protest in Yangon on February 26, 2021, when the military opened fire, killing Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing, a young engineer. “It was my first shock,” said Lei Lei, who is in her late 20s and has been a journalist since 2018.

On March 9, she was reporting on another protest when military forces barricaded off the neighbourhood overnight to trap protesters and arrest them. The same night, the military revoked her media agency’s operating licence. She spent the night in a restaurant, disguised as a kitchen helper.

A week later, she fled to a border area under the control of an ethnic armed group and continued to report on the military’s crackdowns on the protest movement by phone. “I had to make a list of the dead. Every day, I had to call people to get that information. It was exhausting,” she said.

Since May, she has been focusing on Karenni State, also known as Kayah, which is located on Myanmar’s southeastern border with Thailand and has seen some of the country’s most intense fighting between the military and armed resistance groups. The military has retaliated with air attacks and artillery fire, displacing 170,000 people – more than half of the population – from their homes.

On Christmas Eve, the military killed at least 35 civilians in the state’s Hpruso township and burned them in their vehicles. Lei Lei spent weeks looking at photographs of the victims’ charred remains, and interviewing their family members and first responders by phone.

She said the experience left her in a state of shock.

“Sometimes, there was a lot of news to cover but I couldn’t because I struggled with my own mental health,” she explained. “Sometimes, I conducted interviews but I couldn’t write and had to leave things unfinished.”

Guilt, anxiety

Secondary trauma can also affect human rights investigators, who often review and analyse graphic images and videos through their work, in addition to conducting interviews with trauma survivors.

According to research published in 2020 in the Health and Human Rights Journal, experiences with secondary trauma place human rights investigators at risk of cognitive and behavioural consequences, including elevated anxiety and distress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dan, the pseudonym for a human rights investigator who requested his location be withheld for security reasons, has conducted dozens of interviews with victims and witnesses of the military’s human rights abuses since starting his job a few months after the coup. He also regularly reviews photographic and video content of suspected human rights violations and war crimes.

“I always thought I was going to be fine. I knew this job would be difficult for sure, but I didn’t realise the extent to which these anxieties, fears or worries were going to get to me,” said Dan, who is in his late 20s. “Talking to people to find out grave crimes committed by junta soldiers and seeing a lot of gruesome, graphic footage of dead bodies, people mutilated…these images somehow get printed on your subconscious mind, so even though you think you’re compartmentalising…it’s all mixed up.”

Illustration by JC of woman holding her face with one hand as she watches a man on his knees, with the barrel of a gun to his bowed head. In the background sits a frame of houses burning and another with the silhouette of three soldiers.
[Illustration JC/ Al Jazeera]

He also described feeling guilty when comparing himself to the people he interviews. “I sometimes feel that I am not doing enough. These people are risking their lives and all I am doing is talking to them, getting my work done, and getting paid for that,” he said. On top of this, vivid memories of witnessing soldiers shooting people during protests continue to disturb him. “They eat at my ability to feel sane and have clarity of mind,” he told Al Jazeera.

Now, he has migraines, his neck and shoulders ache, he often feels depressed and short-tempered, and he wakes up sweating from nightmares. When he meets up with friends, he has trouble fully enjoying himself. “I always try to have fun or be happy, but it’s very hard. It gets interrupted by reality.”

Dan also finds it hard to pull himself away from his work, due to feeling like he needs to stay on top of the news and promptly respond to calls and messages. “My job became part of my life,” he said. “It is so embedded in my life that it is almost inseparable.”

Trauma passed from survivor to witness

Two mental health providers who are focused on Myanmar populations emphasised to Al Jazeera the importance that journalists and those exposed to trauma through their work practise self-care or take proactive steps to look after their own wellbeing.

Kaung Htoo, the pseudonym for a mental health provider who has run a counselling programme in Myanmar for more than a decade, recommended the use of relaxation techniques and positive thinking, such as focusing on the effect of one’s work, in order to cope with trauma and vicarious trauma.

He also pointed to the importance of acknowledging and facing survivor guilt – an experience commonly felt by those who endured a catastrophic event. According to the American Psychological Association, it includes feeling guilty for being alive, for not suffering what others had to endure, or for feeling one failed to do enough to prevent an event from happening or to save those who died.

Vickie Htet heads another programme called Open Heart Coup Mental Health Support, which was established in February 2021, and offers social support, counselling, and psychiatric services through a team of volunteers from Myanmar.

She encouraged people encountering trauma or vicarious trauma through their work to take proper rest and seek outside support, whether it be through existing social networks or formal mental health providers.

“Trauma can be passed on from the survivor to witnesses to listeners such as journalists and to readers of the news. It is important that we talk about it and deal with it,” she said. “Most of us would put a plaster when we get a wound on our body but do nothing when we get wounded mentally. Even listening to the news can cause a traumatic response in us. So, if you are someone working with survivors of violence, be extra mindful about your own mental health.”

‘Things get bottled up’

Those interviewed by Al Jazeera, however, said they are mostly facing their problems alone and worry about burdening others with their problems.

“I cannot talk about my struggles and problems with friends or family because they have their own issues and struggles,” said Lei Lei.

May Yin said she did not feel her situation was unique or worthy of attention, and that she was further isolated due to her fear of being arrested. “Before, whenever I felt stressed, I could sit and chat with colleagues at tea shops, but we cannot do that in this situation, so I mostly stay alone,” she said. “I am going through all this stress and depression by myself.”

Dan said he avoids bringing up his mental health with others in his professional field because he does not want to give the impression that he is needy. “I don’t want people to think I am making a scene, or that I am special and unique and need their attention,” he said.

Illustration by JC of a man sitting at a desk, work-related documents floating above him as three large silhouetted soldiers loom over the scene, two of their hands grasping down at his shoulders.
[Illustration/ JC/ Al Jazeera]

He has kept details of his job from his family and friends for safety reasons, so he avoids opening up to them as well. “I don’t want to endanger them or put them in a position where they have to keep secrets. I don’t want to burden anybody,” he said. “Not being able to talk with family members or share with friends adds to the not-so-pleasant experience. You keep things to yourself, so over time, things get bottled up.”

To get through these hardships, those interviewed said they focus on the effect they hope to have through their work and to put their own situation in perspective in relation to the broader pro-democracy struggle.

May Yin said she believes that she has an important role to play in ensuring the people’s right to information and that she draws inspiration from others who are risking their lives to resist military dictatorship. “Compared to them, my depression and struggles become tiny. Therefore, whatever the situation is, I will continue,” she said.

Nu Nu Lusan contributed to this report

This article was supported by a grant from ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion, a project funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Source: Al Jazeera