Talking about a taboo | Media and conflict | DW | 01.04.2021
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Media and Conflict

Talking about a taboo

Pakistan’s Wellbeing Centers offer care for traumatized journalists. By Zehra Abid

Street scene in Peshawar during a lockdown in April 2020 due to Coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health concerns for journalists globally.

Street scene in Peshawar during a lockdown in April 2020 due to Coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health concerns for journalists globally.

When Mahim Maher visits newsrooms to inform staff about free psychological counselling offered to journalists, she's often initially met with deadly silence. Maher leads the program of the Wellbeing Centers funded by DW Akademie, which in partnership with a training institute in Pakistan, the Centre for Excellence in Journalism in Karachi, provides trauma counselling around the country. "People don't want to admit they are struggling, even though you can see it in their faces," she says. It wasn't until she would talk about her own struggles with mental health that people would loosen up a bit and get comfortable with the conversation. "It was a huge price to pay because they now go around saying I'm a crazy lady," she says in reference to the taboo that persists around mental health. "No one would really ask questions in these sessions, but mercifully people would privately make appointments afterwards."

Since the Wellbeing Center started in Karachi in 2018, over 90 journalists have made use of the services, according to the Centre for Excellence in Journalism. A Wellbeing Center has now also been established in conflictridden Quetta in partnership with the NGO Individualland, while online counselling is offered across Pakistan, with journalists from Zhob in Balochistan to Khyber Agency accessing the services. These include 50-minute psychological counselling sessions which are strictly confidential. The program coordinator who schedules the appointments and the psychologist are the only people who know who has sought treatment.

"Depression, anxiety, issues around self-esteem and confidence are very common in journalists, much of which is aggravated by erratic work hours, the constant expectation to be on top of the news and the insecurity of jobs and salaries," says Asha Bedar, a clinical psychologist who has been with the center since its inception. "Constantly reporting on human rights abuses, violence and traumatic events also takes its toll. For some, these stressors contribute to physical health problems."

There are times when people need medication in addition to counselling. In such cases, the center refers journalists to a psychiatrist who consults free of charge. However, the service has its limitations. For one, there are just too many people in need of counselling to make space for everyone, leading to long waiting times. This gap in demand and supply is true for Pakistan as a whole. In this country of an estimated 220 million people, the doctor-to-patient ratio is among the lowest in the world and an estimated 50 million people suffer from common mental health disorders.

While the centers were closed due to COVID-19 in 2020, online counselling continued. But access from home is neither as comfortable nor easy for everyone, says Bedar. COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health concerns for journalists globally and Pakistan is no different. Bedar adds that journalists are struggling not only because of the content of stories, but also because every interaction adds to their exposure, increasing the risk that they themselves will become a part of the story.

Zehra Abid is an independent journalist based in Karachi.

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