By Stuart Dickinson

In one of the first integrated workshops of its kind, the Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ) hosted a training session for journalists, justice officials and emergency workers from across Gauteng, looking to impart skills that can help first responders improve mental resilience during and in the wake of traumatic incidents. 

The WCJ welcomed Prof Elana Newman of the University of Tulsa, who gave an enlightening workshop on psychological first aid for first resonders

The workshop formed part of the multi-national Safety Matters campaign jointly run between Oslo Metropolitan University (Norway), the WCJ, the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil) and the University of Tulsa (US), which provides academic training and supports PhD research around issues connected to media, journalism and safety.

Gauteng first responders, which included representatives from SAPS, the International Centre of the Red Cross, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Forensic Pathology Services, Search and Rescue South Africa (SARZA), and journalists from WCJ, News24 and Thomson-Reuters, were given a platform to get to know each other’s work more intimately, the challenges they face in the field, as well as how to how to mitigate and manage the trauma that may be experienced by themselves, their colleagues, and victims. 

The workshop also served as a bridge between journalists and emergency first responders on how to better work together and build a foundation of trust while at emergency scenes.

To lead the discussion and training, the WCJ welcomed trauma expert Professor Elana Newman, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa and Research Director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (Columbia University). WCJ lecturer Dr Nechama Brodie facilitated the event.  

“Journalists are often first responders in the same way that police, search and rescue, or emergency medical services are. But we often don’t talk to each other in that way, or connect with each other as first responders,” said Brodie, who has spent the last decade studying the intricacies of fatal violence in South Africa and building databases with these findings. 

“Just reading about the details of violent crimes through court cases or news articles is very unsettling. It’s the worst of humanity, and I’m only experiencing it on paper while first responders experience it in person, sometimes daily.”

The group listed a variety of stressors and traumas they’re exposed to on a regular basis, ranging from poor leadership and not having equipment to do their jobs properly, to threats of abductions, sexual assault, being shot at, continuous exposure to mutilated bodies, and the ongoing exposure to severe trauma in victims.  

In addition, first responders may have to deal with toxic workplaces and professional stressors, or worrying about whether or not they will have the resources and support they require to solve investigations.

 

In a 2022 study conducted by John W. O’Neil and Leandri Kruger titled Mindset as a resilience resource and perceived wellness of first responders in a South African context, the authors note that only in the last 20 years has some attention been given to the impact that disasters and emergencies have on first responders in the country.

“There is sufficient evidence in the literature proving that first responders are exposed to a wide range of work-related stressors and levels of adversity,” they concluded. “Furthermore, there are wide-ranging studies that make a link between wellness, performance and resilience and the use of resilience resources in the development and enhancement of wellness. One of the resilience resources that consistently contributes to wellness, resilience and consistent performance is that of psychological mindset, a coping mindset or resilient mindset.”

This is corroborated by Prof Newman’s research which has also shown that building mental resilience can be very effective at mitigating trauma and stress.

“People are extremely resilient. Some people talk about it as a process, others talk about it as an endpoint, but the bottom line is that resilience is incredibly important. There is a lot of science that goes into what makes people resilient, but it boils down to the following points,” said Newman.

 

Building resilience 

 

1) Have a set of professional ethics – research has shown that this is one of the most important things to develop when facing challenges. Lean into your professional ethics, and if you don’t have them, create them.

2) Use your signature strengths and skills – lean into what you’re good at. What is your “superpower”? 

3) Training – some people may not have all the equipment they need, but one can ensure that you develop the skills required to do your job effectively. Seek out ways to develop professionally and personally. 

4) Religion / spirituality / a connection to something greater – trauma disconnects people, so developing a connection to something greater, whatever that is, has improved resilience in study groups.

5) Optimism, humour and a fighting spirit – this includes a feeling of moral outrage. Getting angry at injustice and then doing something about it can improve mental resilience. 

6) Having a strong sense of purpose – and for those in leadership positions, regularly remind your staff about why you’re doing the work you do. What difference are you making? What is the end goal? When times get tough, even just hearing that one is doing a good job can make a difference.

7) Having a supportive community – this can be grouped into three sub-areas: a) – having support from management; b) – perceiving that your organisation cares about you; and c) – peer support. It’s been shown that mentoring someone else can be as mentally protective as being mentored. There are ways to give support through being a good leader.  

If you would like to join upcoming talks about journalism and safety, including lectures with Professor Newman, please email lineo.leteba@wits.ac.za.