Amna Nawaz of 'PBS NewsHour' Advocates for Journalists' Mental Health
Journalists covering traumatic events often have PTSD. Amna Nawaz talks about why she’s trying to bring awareness to the issue and about her own struggles with anxiety.
In 2023, Amna Nawaz became the first Asian American and Muslim American to anchor a nationally broadcasted news program when she began co-anchoring "PBS NewsHour" with Geoff Bennett. Before she joined PBS in 2018, Nawaz was already an experienced journalist, serving as an anchor and correspondent at ABC News, and prior to that, as a foreign correspondent and Islamabad Bureau Chief at NBC News.
Nawaz knows firsthand how covering traumatic events can take a toll on journalists. She's covered many major ones during her career including the January 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol; the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; Hurricane Katrina; the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the September 11 attacks.
"When we leave, I think our job as journalists has always been to just move onto the next thing. But that trauma stays with us, too."
We spoke with Nawaz about living with anxiety and the importance of talking about mental health issues.
What follows is our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Next Avenue: You have covered so many major events that were really upsetting. As a mental health advocate for journalists with PTSD, have you experienced PTSD yourself?
Amna Nawaz: I've never had a formal diagnosis. I'm in the process of therapy, which I've been going through for years now — more intensively in the last several months. I think it's fair to say that a lot of journalists who've covered conflict, who've covered war, covered disaster, carry a lot. And I think, as journalists, much of our training over the years has just been to put your head down and get through it.
That's what's necessary in the moment to get the job done. It's the stuff over time that really builds, and I think I am still really in the process of unpacking exactly how much of an impact [events] had on me. I've been doing this for 20 years now, and I realized that, like any institution, in journalism, we need our leaders to be okay, and I'm figuring out how to be okay.
With all the traumatic experiences you've covered, have you ever gotten to a point where you've said, 'I don't want to cover this kind of stuff anymore?' As in being an on-the-ground journalist?
I haven't. I have yet to feel that sentiment ever. That tells me I'm in the right line of work. I still have that urge, whenever anything happens anywhere, to want to go there, to want to better understand it. I'm so curious about the world around me, good and bad. We cover trauma. We cover people who have clearly been traumatized — people who've lived through the worst experiences of their entire lives. That's when we show up on their doorstep in what's left of their community.
When we leave, I think our job as journalists has always been to just move onto the next thing. But that trauma stays with us, too.
The Haitian earthquake was a real turning point for me because it was a time of great stress, as well as great excitement, in my life. I was literally weeks away from getting married. Paul [Werdel, her husband] and I were both deployed for our separate news organizations to Haiti to different parts of the nation, and I had gone to the western part of the country, which, to that point, had received no aid because it was basically cut off from the rest of the country.
My team and I were the first to arrive with the Marine expeditionary unit, and we went out on some recon missions. The buildings were all exactly where they laid when they'd fallen. They'd been pancaked down, and when we'd ask people, you know, who was in this building, who was in that building, they'd say, oh, there were six people here. There was a mother and a father and family, and I'd say, 'Well, where are they?' And they'd look at me like I [didn't understand] and say, 'They're still in there.'
"I love this work, and I'm good at this work, and I'm going to continue to do it, but I need to do it in a way that I can still take care of myself."
It had been days, and that, for me, was a real turning point. I came back. I got married. I went on with my life, but my panic attacks started after that, and I see now, going back in the work that I do with my therapist, this idea of being trapped, of not being able to get out, of not being able to breathe, that all goes back to how I felt in my gut being [in Haiti] in the moment.
Did you go into therapy after you started having panic attacks, or did you wait?
I didn't. I, stupidly, told myself I could fix this, and I would get over it. I spent years doing that. It got worse, I think, when I had children. Life gets more stressful and chaotic, and I realized, over time, it wasn't getting better. But it really wasn't until I came back after covering the Uvalde school shooting where I guess I was acting differently.
I'm sure I was carrying myself differently. My husband grabbed my one day and held me by the shoulders, and he said, 'You are not okay. You need to talk to someone.' He has always been my rock through the years. He's the one I confide in and talk to. But he was right. I needed to see true professionals, and so, I immediately sought help. I went into some intensive time in therapy.
I'm still continuing it today — on a less-intense schedule — but it really hasn't been until recently that I've done the work of unpacking why it is I feel the things that I do. Also, how it can better prepare me to keep doing this journalism. I mean, that is the point of all of this. I love this work, and I'm good at this work, and I'm going to continue to do it, but I need to do it in a way that I can still take care of myself.
Did you choose to go on any medication for the panic?
I have not. No. I've never been medicated. No. There's nothing wrong with that. I encourage people to seek out the help that they need with the help of a provider they trust, but that hasn't been the path that I've needed to take.
Have you been officially diagnosed with panic disorder from having panic attacks, or did you just start seeing a therapist and not get into a specific diagnosis?
We've gotten to, certainly, an anxiety diagnosis and the understanding that a lot of the physical manifestations probably come from that. It's a lot more about managing the stress and anxiety right now than anything else.
"You can continue functioning, and no one else around you is any wiser to it because you do such a good job of hiding it."
There are flare-ups. From time to time, I think, like a lot of things, there are triggers. I carry with me a deep empathy in all that I do, and I think sometimes that makes the separation difficult between the stories that I'm covering and what it is that I know I'm feeling, and our audience is feeling in the moment.
But again, this is a process. I want to stress how none of this was ever talked about when I was coming up. I don't think anybody ever talked about 'how do you care for yourself?' 'Are you okay? You just covered a really awful story. Do you need a day to spend time with your family or just not work for a day?' And how do we sustain this next generation of journalists? That's something that I'm really concerned about.
When did you start talking about this and start being a mental health advocate for journalists who are covering any kind of story that can be traumatic?
I wouldn't say that there was a definite starting point. I think it's probably something I've always quietly spoken about with my friends in my community and with younger journalists that I mentor in the field. That's just something as simple as checking in; are you okay, and can I help refer you to someone?
And luckily, there have always been these kinds of networks that existed, both to support ourselves — especially among young women journalists — but also support for freelance journalists, programs through the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF).
I will say, [mental health] is much broader and freely spoken about today.
I have the benefit of being in an organization where, across our leadership — both at WETA and 'NewsHour' at PBS — it's something that is addressed and acknowledged. Resources are there and available, and I'm so grateful for that. I know not everybody is that lucky, so that's why I think we do need to talk about [mental health] and keep talking about it.
With anyone — journalists or not — who believes they have some kind of anxiety or PTSD or other mental health issue —what would you tell them to do?
The first thing I would tell them is to talk to someone about it. It doesn't have to be a professional provider of any kind. It just needs to be someone that you trust, whether that's a mentor in your field or a close friend.
I think one of the things we all do, one of the things I know I did, was tell myself it's going to be fine or that I was making a big deal out of nothing. For most of us, I think for many of us, that is the case.
You can continue functioning, and no one else around you is any wiser to it because you do such a good job of hiding it. It's when it starts to interfere with the rest of your life. It's when you know it doesn't need to feel this way. It didn't always feel this way. I think that's the point where a lot of people wait until they start to say something, and at that point, you need a lot more help than you would've if you had just started talking about it earlier.
The very first thing I want people to know is that we have language for this (anxiety and PTSD) now. We have community for this now. We have support for this now. We didn't even know what to call this 20 years ago. Just talk to someone you trust, and if that doesn't help, talk to someone else. That's the very first step.
"The very first thing I want people to know is that we have language for this now. We have community for this now."
In talking about it, I want people to know it's okay, and it's nothing to be ashamed of, and it doesn't prevent you from doing whatever it is you're doing to the best of your ability.
I would never want anyone to think managing your anxiety or managing your stress or managing your depression or managing whatever it is that you're carrying with you, that that will stop you from reaching goals in other parts of your life or having a wonderful family, or from having a successful and satisfying career. All of these things are possible.
Do you believe that we have started to make strides so that people don't have to feel that way, so that people can go out and get help without feeling they've somehow failed?
I hope so. I know there's a lot of work to be done, but the statistics speak for themselves. Something like one out of every five Americans have some kind of mental health struggle that they're managing. I don't know how you look at those numbers and not assume that everyone around you is dealing with something in some way.
I think moving through the world that way has really helped me to better understand and to better advocate for it as well. I certainly think there are communities in which there's absolutely a stigma that's still attached, whether in first-generation families or older generations. I come from a South Asian background. Mental health is not necessarily something that's a comfortable topic with a lot [of members of] our family.
I'm lucky to come from a really open and understanding and communicative family. I have no problem talking with my family about things that I'm going through, but I know not everyone is that lucky. So, yes, there absolutely is a lot of work to be done, but we are in a better place today to address a lot of it and to make sure that next generations are better for it.
Do you think that, at some point, it should be something that is addressed in the educational system, especially for journalists or for any kind of writers?
Never really thought about that, to be honest.
"It popped up more in my private life than in my professional, to be honest, and I think that was one sign of my being able to compartmentalize."
Yeah, I hadn't, either. It was one of those questions that popped into my head.
If you think about it, the training that we get as journalists relies on, obviously, the work that goes out into the world, right? How to write, how to communicate, how to edit, how to shoot, even [training] for going into war zones or disaster zones.
I had to undergo a very specific level of training for 'What happens if you get kidnapped? What happens if you get hurt? How do you keep yourself safe when there is active shooting going on around you?' And we never said, 'What do you do when you come back?' No one prepares you for that.
You believe you started having panic attacks after the Haiti earthquakes. Were you ever on other assignments where you were experiencing panic, as well?
I don't recall a specific moment. It popped up more in my private life than in my professional, to be honest, and I think that was one sign of my being able to compartmentalize. When I'm in the field, I'm in the field. I go into a different place and a different zone, and it's all about focusing on the work. I think the problems began because I would carry it home with me.
And when I would allow myself to go there is when I would start to feel those things, but it began definitely after the earthquake, and it was popping up in places where it became problematic. I would be on the subway and the doors would close, and I would look around me, and the first thing that would go through my head is what if I can't get out? It would happen on elevators. It would happen in small rooms with no windows.
There were all these times where that same sense of panic and being closed in would appear, and again, understanding it is what helps me to keep it at bay. Being able to say out loud, being about to talk about it, understanding this is something that I'm feeling, not something that I'm thinking and separating what is it I'm feeling from what I know to be true — that's all the work that I've been doing and still do today.