The experience of covering traumatic news stories has led Sian Williams, the former presenter of BBC1’s Breakfast, to switch careers so that she can help other journalists who suffer from stress after working in war zones or disaster areas.
Williams, who resigned from the early morning news programme in 2012 when it transferred from London to Salford, is studying for a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Westminster. She is specialising in how reporters can be protected from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing suffering, conflict, death and grief in their daily work.
In her time as a reporter, she covered the Hillsborough stadium disaster, the Paddington train crash, the Asian tsunami and, in 2005, the Pakistan earthquake. After a week of reporting from the epicentre of the earthquake, she recalls returning to a comfortable hotel in Islamabad, “taking off my boots and frantically scrubbing them again and again. When I returned home to the warmth of my family, images of devastation and decay, the cries of distress and the sickly smell of disease and death lingered.” Yet life and her career had to go on. “I would come back from Pakistan, sit on the sofa and interview a soap star. That was the job.”
Williams said the memory of the disaster suddenly hit her again in 2010. “I don’t know what it was … some things in your career have an enormous impact, even if they don’t resonate as important at the time.”
She links it to her mother’s death from cancer that year and the fact that she had two very young children. Always petite, she lost a lot of weight, and Breakfast viewers noticed.
“When talking to people in such an extreme state of shock, I felt enormously guilty. I had people’s lives in my hands and I hoped I was dealing with them fairly. It was difficult to square with my conscience,” she said.
She remains haunted by a live broadcast she did from the earthquake zone for the 1pm news while, behind her, desperate brothers were pulling their dead mother from the rubble.
Williams doesn’t think she ever suffered from PTSD, but after returning from Pakistan she asked to train as a trauma assessment counsellor, becoming part of a BBC team. “It is a struggle to get people to come forward,” she said. “News journalists are in and out. They think they can cope.”
News is also an industry increasingly employing freelancers who do not enjoy job security and are more open to exploitation. Williams, 49, points out that studies suggest between 6% and 28% of reporters covering distressing events suffer some form of PTSD, with veteran war reporters, at 28%, facing the same levels as combat veterans.
Interviewed at her home in north London, she spoke about her new career path, which meant she ceased to be a BBC staffer last August because of the demands of the course. With a solid second marriage to television producer Paul Woolwich and four children – the youngest being five and seven years old – she is intent on making a difference to the lives of stressed journalists across all news outlets.
She is aware that journalists need protecting from themselves, and need to be prepared before and after they go on assignment. “A conscientious reporter will overwork,” she said. “They are the ones typically most susceptible to acute symptoms of PTSD. They want to do everything, but they are not attending to their own health. You can talk to them before they go, get them to talk to some of the people they will be working for, so they have support, so they are explicit about what they can do, not taking constant calls and doing ‘two-ways’.”
An article by Williams on the issue will appear in this month’sPsychologist Magazine.
She still does a little broadcasting and said her studies had been helpful when conducting interviews for a forthcoming ITV series on people who have survived extreme experiences, including the Asian tsunami.
Asked if she would go back to being a full-time broadcaster, Williams said: “I don’t know. I am just dipping my toe into this primarily to do something positive. I have been in news so long, I knew it so well. I hope I come out of this with something that will make a difference.”
This article first appeared in the Observer.