Drink and drugs risk of reporting war zones

War correspondents drink more heavily and take more hard drugs than other journalists, a new study has revealed. Women who have reported from war zones drink four times more heavily than non-war correspondents, while their male colleagues drink twice as much as those who have not covered conflict, a survey of 170 journalists reveals.

As well as drinking more excessively, more of the 170 war correspondents who took part in the study also said they took hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

Severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was more common among war correspondents than among the 80 journalists taking part in the study who had not been to war zones. War correspondents were also more likely to suffer long-term PTSD than police officers and only slightly less than combat veterans.

The study, the first of its kind, was carried out by Professor Anthony Feinstein from the University of Toronto and the findings were launched at the Freedom Forum’s European Centre in London last week. Journalists from the BBC, CNN, Reuters, ITN and Associated Press took part.

Allan Little, the BBC’s Africa correspondent, who was part of a panel discussing the research, said he was not surprised by the findings. "The idea that you can spend a decade or more swanning into war zones, experience the horror and impossible misery that others are suffering, and then swan out again and have a normal life really has to be challenged," he said.

All the war correspondents had been shot at, two had experienced mock executions and three had close colleagues who had been killed while they were working together.

As a result of their experiences, many of them experienced flashbacks, severe depression, psychological distress, anxiety and social problems.

"Two factors that particularly distinguished war correspondents were sudden changes in mood and feelings of emptiness inside," said Feinstein.

But they were no more likely than other journalists to receive psychiatric help, the study, which was funded by the Freedom Forum, revealed.

Feinstein said he believed there was "a culture of silence on the part of news bosses and the journalists themselves, a belief that as a profession they can go off to war and emerge psychologically unscathed".

However, Times correspondent Janine di Giovanni said that despite being shot at and subjected to a mock execution she had not suffered PTSD.

"It’s the people who have been raped, the people who have had their villages destroyed, the amputees in Sierra Leone, who are traumatised," she said. "We go there voluntarily and we can leave and it’s an incredible privilege to be in the places where it’s happening, feeling that you are in the middle of history."

Mark Brayne, from the BBC’s World Service, a trained psychotherapist, said the fact that the issue was being discussed showed "we have arrived at a significant point in journalism".

By Julie Tomlin

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