When your job immerses you in stress and trauma

"Don't bottle things up."

"Don't bottle things up." Photo: Stocksy

Sarah Dingle sat in her car with a man who had sexually abused his two-year-old daughter. He talked for over an an hour.

It was the beginning of a story which would horrify and captivate her audience and eventually lead to the radio documentary which won Australian journalism's highest honour, the Walkley Award.

The abuse went on for nearly a decade and finally the daughter disclosed to her teacher; the father was convicted of three counts of intercourse with a child under ten.

For Dingle, the story itself took maybe six weeks – but stayed in her head for many months afterwards. She knew it was a story which had to be told – so much important attention had gone to those victims of child abuse in Australian institutions. But the story of those in families, where most of the child sexual abuse takes place, had never been told. As the head of the Social Justice Research Centre at Edith Cowan University, Professor Caroline Taylor, told Dingle: "What we fail to understand also is that victims abused in a family setting are more likely to be abused for far longer periods of time because the offender has access 24/7."


And at the end of it? "Tough girls do cry." By the time she finished working on the story, she'd visited a counsellor who insisted she took leave straight away. Dingle went straight to Lord Howe Island, no internet, little television.

It's a risk for all of us who work with stress and trauma – whether we are journalists or doctors, police or paramedics. And it's how we learn to manage the stress which makes it possible for us to continue with the hard gigs.

There are three things you need to do to cope if you deal with trauma and stress in your working life, says Cait McMahon, a registered psychologist and the managing director of Dart Centre Asia Pacific, which supports journalists reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy.

McMahon, speaking at Women in Media's Crisis and Survival – sustaining a career in news, on Tuesday night, said those three coping strategies included the physical, the spiritual, the intellectual.

And that was precisely the way Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste survived his time in jail – pacing the prison, learning to meditate, studying a degree in international relations, says McMahon.

Exercise, mindfulness, engaged brain – that's the way to cope, if you deal with stress and trauma.

Or walking the dogs. That's Janet Fife-Yeoman's way of separating herself from a life of crime reporting. And talking to the dogs. Fife-Yeomans has been a crime reporter for 30 years, covering the Ivan Milat trial and the Port Arthur massacre in one tight period of time. She says she's never needed to download to a friend but has valued the companionship of those she works with. She can come back from the toughest trials and just blurt out her story; and write it just that way.

She's always felt like she has had a bubble protecting her.

"My notebook is like my shield – I'm not very good at telling people about myself, I don't want people to know anything about me except what I write." Sometimes though, little cracks appear – during the Milat trial it was hard to see the pain of the families of the murdered. And during the trial of the murderers of Janine Balding, Fife-Yeoman's became very close to Beverley, Janine's mother, who died in 2013.

"She behaved as I thought my mum would – she wanted to be there for her daughter. Her funeral was very sad."

When Dingle returned from her holiday in Lord Howe, she also made some other decisions – trying to cap her working hours and forcing herself to stop checking her emails.

Learn to relax. For Philippa McDonald, who covered the Christchurch earthquake, that was tough.

"I kept feeling the aftershocks in Potts Point," she said. Yes, it can be useful to talk to a professional but it's also important to "be a bit normal".

"Swims in the ocean, holding a baby, reading a book to a niece or nephew."

And stay connected. Don't isolate yourself. Talk to your peers.

For most of us, even if we work as casuals, as teachers or nurses or police officers, we still have the groups of colleagues to whom we can chat.

Not Fiona Harari. She's a freelance writer whose work takes her into some dark places, from stories of children with illnesses so severe they will never survive to stories of children who've disappeared.

After one particularly tough interview, she returned to her home office. And of course, no-one to hear her unload. And she rang a friend, who was too busy to hear her out. A friend who never rang back to listen.

Her advice: "Don't bottle things up."

And be very sure you have someone who will help you unbottle.

If you need someone to talk to, call: SANE Australia Helpline – call 1800 18 7263

Beyond Blue - call 1300 22 4636 or  beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support

Follow me on Twitter @jennaprice or email jenna_p@bigpond.net.au