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The psychological cost of covering war

Dr. Anthony Feinstein

Dr. Anthony Feinstein is a neuropsychiatrist at Sunnybrook and an expert on mental trauma experienced by journalists who have reported from conflict zones all around the globe including Afghanistan, Syria, and Bosnia. He is currently working with newsrooms in Canada, the United States, and Europe as journalists cover the war in Ukraine.

In addition to supporting conflict journalists who are living with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, Dr. Feinstein is helping to raise awareness of the stories they cover.

Dr. Feinstein has written several books on mental trauma in conflict journalism and produced the documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2012.

He is also the executive producer of a new Globe and Mail documentary, Shooting War, which will be showing at the 2022 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival. The documentary is based on his book of the same name published in 2018, which profiles 18 world-renowned photojournalists and the impact of covering war.

In this Q & A, Dr. Feinstein discusses the Shooting War documentary and the psychological impact of war coverage.

What makes your work meaningful to you?

Dr. Feinstein: This kind of work is relevant to the world that we find ourselves in because there’s so much conflict. It helps to keep the public informed of what’s going on and tells us about the journalists who are telling these important stories and the cost that can come from this kind of work. I think it’s never been more relevant than now. In many ways we’re globally connected — conflicts taking place far away in places like Ukraine have the ability to affect us directly in terms of our day-to-day lives, so we need to know about these things, and my work hopefully helps foster that.

Are you working with journalists who are reporting on, and from, the current conflict in Ukraine?

Dr. Feinstein: I’m hearing from people on the ground as well as newsrooms where their teams are having to process a huge amount of material, much of which is very traumatic, including images of the dead or injured, bereaved people, and terrible destruction. Journalists are often witnessing these terrible images for many hours a day.

In a more general sense, what are the different ways the public may be impacted or traumatized by images such as the current war in Ukraine? 

Dr. Feinstein: When we look at these images we experience a mix of emotions: empathy, outrage, horror at what’s going on. What we know from a traumatic event such as September 11 , where there was a lot of visual imagery on computers and television, is that there are individuals in society who are very vulnerable to this kind of news, for example those with a past psychiatric history.  But the majority of the general population in countries geographically removed from the conflict, like Canada, will not develop trauma-related emotional disorders.

What kind of therapy can help journalists dealing with mental trauma?

Dr. Feinstein: The kinds of therapies that work for trauma are cognitive behavioural therapy, cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, EMDR — which is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, so there are a number of psychotherapies which are useful treatments for trauma-related mental health.

How do conflict photojournalists recover from the trauma of covering war? 

Dr. Feinstein: It’s very difficult and dangerous work and these journalists see terrible things — but the majority of journalists don’t become traumatized by this work. It’s the minority who do. The challenge from my end is to help news organizations identify the journalists who are not okay, because they’re the ones who require the therapy. There are very effective therapies for trauma, so if people can get help, get the right kind of therapy, they can recover, do well, and continue with work. The challenge is identifying the people who need it.

What would you like people to know about the Shooting War documentary?

Dr. Feinstein: I think the documentary is relevant to Canadians because of what’s going on in world around us. The Shooting War documentary helps inform people about not only conflicts, but also about the people who bring us news of war. I think that’s important — that we need to understand the nature of war journalism, how difficult it is, how dangerous it can be, and the cost that journalists may pay when they do this work. This is what my work shines a light on — it brings into focus the people that keep us informed of very important news.

If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

About the author

Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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