How to talk to people about trauma — and take care of yourself

Published on
April 19, 2019

I spent about a year on my California Fellowship project, reporting on the high schools in Los Angeles County surrounded by the highest number of homicides.

I’d like to use this space to write about the challenges I encountered and approaches I used in talking to parents and children about trauma, as well as the way I dealt with the mental health impacts of this reporting. While the homicides we counted included victims of all ages, I focused on some of the youngest people who had been killed.   

For this story, I wanted to center the voices of high school students and their families. It was important for us to showcase the data from my colleague Iris Lee’s analysis, but listing the schools in the most violent areas was not useful unless we had human voices to take us through the experience of living in those communities and getting to those schools.

That meant talking to teenagers and parents about people they had lost — their friends or brother or family members. Many people I spoke to had already sought out mental health resources by the time I interviewed them, so I was not the first person with whom they processed the loss, or in some cases, multiple losses. But others had not talked to a mental health professional, or someone trained in trauma and grief counseling, about the people who had been killed. Or they had but were still grieving, so their ability to talk about the death and spend time with us changed throughout the reporting.

I’m not a therapist, I don’t have mental health training, and I know it’s not my job to help people process their emotions during interviews. But I do consider it my job to not leave people I interview — kids, especially — worse off than when we first started talking. So, over the last few years and throughout this project, I talked to mental health and trauma experts who work with children to understand how to talk to young people about loss without retraumatizing them.

Tips for interviewing people about traumatic events

First, I made sure to tell the parents and students willing to talk to me what the stories were about, explain the process of interviewing, where they would appear, and ask if they had any questions or concerns at all. I made sure they knew that they had the power to stop the interview at any point, to tell me if they became uncomfortable, or to go off the record if needed. If we spoke about something particularly difficult, I would pause to check in and ask how they were feeling as we talked about it, and if they were OK to continue. And I tried to make sure to close every conversation by asking teens what they do to feel better or to feel safe, or to feel good. That way, instead of leaving the conversation open with all of the emotions we had just delved into, we ended on a note about how they cope with that pain and talked about the resources they have. Examples of how I might ask this include, “What makes you feel better when you’re feeling sad?” and “Who do you talk to if you’re not feeling good?”

If you’re talking to teens, realize that whether you see yourself this way or not, you are an adult, and therefore might be an authority figure to many of them. Adults often feel like they can tell us when they don’t want to talk anymore, or can’t handle the conversation; kids will continue answering the questions because they think they’re supposed to. So, make sure they know they have agency, check in with them and pay attention to changes in body language or the way they’re answering questions. If it seemed clear a student was getting nervous, or uncomfortable, or agitated, I would pause, ask how they were doing, or ask about something lighter, or how they cope with these feelings when they come up.

There were also parents and children who decided, after initially talking to me, that they didn’t want to be in the stories anymore, or do more interviews, either for safety concerns, because the experience was difficult on them, or for privacy concerns. We respected those wishes.

Take care of yourself!

Before starting on this project, I had spent a significant amount of time in the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 reporting on mass shootings, fires and other national emergencies and natural disasters. I started to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms — I was afraid of fire, afraid any place I went could be the target of the next mass shooting, and hypersensitive to what was happening around me. As I was reporting on these stories, I started to see those symptoms return and worsen.

My initial reaction was that because I wasn’t experiencing the losses myself, I shouldn’t be affected or negatively impacted by the reporting I was doing — I felt, and it is true, that so many people’s experiences were so much more difficult than mine, and that to be able to remove myself for an extended period of time was a luxury that my sources don’t have. But neither of those truths is a reason not to take care of myself. Secondary trauma is common among journalists, and if you are reporting on subjects that are difficult, keep in mind that it is very possible to be emotionally impacted by the work you do.

I finally took my therapist’s advice after the stories ran and took three weeks off work to relax. I hiked, hung out with cute dogs, cooked, read outside and went to museums around L.A. Stories like this, and these students, are the ones I want to spend time with and continue writing about, so the time I took was vital for me to be able to return and continue the coverage I most care about. Hopefully the journalism will be stronger because of the time I gave myself.