Veteran journalist fights for recognition of work-related PTSD

While covering the brutal prison murder of Adam Kargus in London, Ontario, Veteran CBC reporter Colin Butler noticed he wasn’t feeling like he used to.

“I started seeing things in my mind,” Butler said. Images of the killer’s face flashed through his memory, as did the faces of victims in other cases he covered over the years, including that of Tori Stafford, eight years oldwho was abducted and killed near Woodstock, Ontario in 2009.

Known as the “go-to guy” among bosses and colleagues, Butler was dispatched daily to cover breaking news and difficult, often gruesome court cases. But after covering the Kargus trial in 2019, Butler found himself crying every day at work. “I couldn’t control it anymore,” he said. Shortly after, Butler was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A study released Wednesday by two veteran journalists through the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, titled “Caring,” found that a majority of media workers in Canada have sought medical help to do coping with symptoms of stress and trauma. Much of this toll is due to constant exposure to difficult material at work, a culture that rewards overwork while warding off mental health issues, and, recently, rising rates of harassment against journalists, online and offline.

The findings, collected through a voluntary survey of more than 1,200 journalists and other media outlets nationwide, paint a disturbing picture of the state of mental health in the industry, said Matthew Pearson, assistant professor at Carleton University School of Journalism, which co-wrote the report with journalist Dave Seglins. (The author of this article responded to the survey.)

“I would describe the results as concerning,” Pearson said. “I would also describe them as confirmation of what we had wondered, but had no conclusive evidence to support: that journalists and media workers in Canada are not immune to impact of the trauma they experience”, as do first responders. , he said.

For Butler, a big challenge was the battle to have his PTSD recognized and compensated by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), after the board rejected his original request in October 2019. The commission, Butler said, ruled the traumatic stress he experienced was related to a disagreement with a colleague after he refused to continue covering the Kargus trial, and not because of exposure accumulated trauma for years in the course of his work.

Butler has since appealed, arguing that journalists can suffer from PTSD in the same way as frontline responders.

As a journalist for more than 20 years, Butler often responded to scenes of fatal car collisions, sometimes arriving before paramedics. He has also covered the G20 protests in Toronto, the devastating tornadoes in southern Ontario in 2009 and other traumatic events.

“PTSD is like hanging on to a freight train; you’re hanging on for dear life, you’re not in control and you have no idea where you’re going,” Butler said. He added that he hopes that if the WSIB recognizes his case, it will be easier for other journalists to be heard by the commission.

Under the WSIB’s operational policy manual, PTSD related to frontline work is mainly recognized for a list of 18 first responder jobs, including paramedics, firefighters, police, as well as communications workers who dispatch these first responders. Journalists are not on this list.

Although journalists are not officially recognized as front-line workers at risk of developing PTSD, some say their role makes them vulnerable to triggers of stress and trauma, as outlined in the American Psychiatric’s Diagnostic Handbook Association.

To be diagnosed with PTSD, the manual states that a person must be exposed to death, death threats, serious injury, or sexual violence, either by experiencing that trauma directly or by testifying. Repeated exposure to trauma is also part of the diagnostic criteria. Exposure through electronic or visual media is generally excluded from the criteria, unless it is work-related.

The link between PTSD and journalism has been studied by Dr. Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and neuropsychiatrist at the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook. Feinstein first examined trauma in war correspondents more than two decades ago. Through interviews with war reporters, he found that they tended to have higher symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Feinstein said reporters closer to home could also suffer psychological harm from covering stories such as “pandemic coverage, the recent attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario, the discovery of the remains of 215 children natives who were part of Canada’s residential school system, the murder of George Floyd, the mass shootings and attacks on Canadians and Asian Americans, and others.

“These events can also harm a journalist’s emotional well-being,” Feinstein said. in a June 2021 interview.

The “Taking Care” study, of which Feinstein was the supervisor, revealed that 27% of Canadian journalists surveyed suffered from anxiety, 20% from depression and 7.5% from PTSD. About 85% of respondents said they had been negatively affected after covering stories about crimes against children, sexual assault and other types of human suffering.

The report notes that there has been a lack of recognition of mental health issues on the ground, and therefore a reluctance by many to come forward due to stigma.

As Butler heads into his WSIB appeal, which is expected to be scheduled later this summer, there are few legal precedents for PTSD and journalism cases in Canada. In Australia, however, a newspaper was ordered to pay its former crime reporter $180,000 in damages for PTSD suffered on the job, in what has been described as a historic decision.

Asked to comment, Christine Arnott, spokesperson for the WSIB, said the board considers all facts and circumstances surrounding a claim when determining whether an employee is entitled to compensation for leave or treatment for an injury. suffered at work. But “extending the PTSD presumption to other occupations” is a decision only the Ontario Ministry of Labor can make.

Butler is now following a return-to-work plan, working four times a week. He always avoids missions that heavily involve trauma. He is also undergoing treatment for his PTSD.

He maintains his love for journalism. And speaking of his trauma, Butler said he hopes journalists and industry leaders can recognize the dangerous nature of the work, raise awareness and protect themselves and their employees.

“There were signs along the way,” Butler said of his PTSD, but he couldn’t recognize them until much later.


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Maria D. Ervin