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In South Africa, a Journalist Finds Words for Unspeakable Tragedies

 Carter Center Mental Health Program Observes World Mental Health Day  (Read More)

It was a recurring headline in South African newspapers: "Cop Murder-Suicide Claims Family." Dozens of sons, fathers, and husbands working in the South African Police Service had committed these crimes against their own families, but the stories of what motivated them were rarely told.

Tamar Kahn, a South African journalist for Business Day, decided to investigate what was driving so many of the country's law enforcement officers over the edge.

"I wasn't seeing a lot of stories in the local media exploring why so many policemen were committing suicide or committing acts of violence against their loved ones. I wondered what systems were in place to safeguard their mental health, and the extent to which they felt able to draw on these kinds of resources," Kahn explained.

Kahn applied for a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellowship because she saw it as an opportunity to work on a series of in-depth investigative articles about a range of mental health issues affecting police officers in post-apartheid South Africa.

Her reporting brought her face-to-face with police officers who were haunted by flashbacks and experienced breakdowns due to severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She went on patrol with an elite police squad, accompanying officers on their often violent and dangerous night beat. She spoke with the lone survivors of family murder-suicides and interviewed traumatized volunteers who had filled the breach in communities where the under-resourced police services were overwhelmed by violent crime. 

Through her interviews,  Kahn uncovered a "tough-man" mentality among most policemen, a common cultural trait in South African men that was further exacerbated by working in law enforcement. As a result many officers, who face constant exposure to dangerous, high-stress situations, lack the skills or inclination to seek the help they need.

The eight-month investigation was both exhilarating and draining for her.

"Each story affected me more deeply. You're not human if it doesn't affect you. You know the old line that journalists have a chip of ice in their hearts? Well I came away thinking, I wish I had an iceberg in mine," said Kahn.

While little change has been initiated in the internal systems of the South African Police Service, Kahn feels she has succeeded in bringing some serious issues to light. The publication of her work was accompanied by a surge in coverage of mental health issues by South African newspapers and radio shows. When asked about her experience as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow,  Kahn believes it gave her the opportunity to bring pressing issues into the public spotlight, which may help initiate change.

"It's a way of taking our readers, I hope, to places that they would never go. And by showing them these places, perhaps they will be better informed about the challenges facing our police force, and in turn pressure our policy makers to improve the mental health services for police men and women."

2006-2007 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow Tamar Kahn listens to a speaker during the 2006 Mental Health Fellows journalism meeting.
Carter Center Photo: D. Hakes
(Click to enlarge)

2006-2007 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow Tamar Kahn listens to a speaker during the 2006 Mental Health Fellowship Meeting. Ms. Kahn wrote seven in-depth articles during her time as a fellow to shed light on the unique mental health issues facing policemen in her country of South Africa. Her series can be found in the Fellowship archives. 

Read about other Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellows around the globe working to change the public's misperceptions about mental illnesses.

Michelle Roberts
Michelle Roberts

Mental Health Fellow Breaks Down Stereotypes 

Alexandru Ulmanu
Alexandru Ulmanu

Journalism Fellowships Expand to Romania

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