A little over two years ago, I wrote publicly for the first time about my diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Before then, it had taken me many years to seek help, held back by shame and isolation. But in the months after my diagnosis, I decided to share my experiences, hoping it might help others feel less alone.
I was humbled by the response to my piece in Poynter. From around the world, people wrote to say my story resonated. I realized I could combine my personal experiences of surviving trauma with my professional insights into journalism and media safety.
I made it my mission to encourage more open and inclusive conversations around mental health in the news media.
This World Mental Health Day, the theme is “make mental health and well-being for all a global priority.” Based on what I have learned over the past two years, we have made significant strides in journalism. Today many more newsrooms recognize the need to take seriously issues of mental health. However, support is patchy and we are still a way off from making this an industry priority. We have to invest in resources and conversations. We have to have leaders showing empathy and role-modeling behavior that allows people to feel less isolated and more heard.
This Oct. 10, and beyond, I believe we need to make health and well-being for all in journalism an industry priority.
I don’t remember a time when so many colleagues were this exhausted, anxious, burnt out and stressed. And for all those we know about, there are many more who cannot share how they feel for fear it will hurt their careers.
Over the past two years, I’ve connected with hundreds of colleagues from diverse backgrounds and at different stages of their careers. I convene a regular cross-industry conversation with news leaders and facilitate discussions within several major news organizations. Last year, I founded Headlines Network, a community to promote more open conversations about mental health in the media through training, tips and talking.
I’ve recently been commissioned to write a practical guide on journalism and mental health for Routledge and my research for this has corroborated much of the other work I have done.
There has not yet been a real shift in journalism to seeing mental health as a financial priority that needs investment. It’s almost as if talking about money is somehow sacrilegious to the subject. But it’s my belief that many of those in charge of budgets, decisions and strategy haven’t yet grasped how investing in resources and conversations is a good idea. It will boost business, retention, support diversity and inclusion initiatives, as well as reduce presenteeism and sick days, and insurance costs. Investment will value and validate journalists. I know enough about mental health to know that when people feel better, they perform better. So, better journalists equal better journalism.
The pandemic has brought stress and trauma closer to home for many. It’s highlighted the similarities between journalists and frontline responders, such as paramedics, firefighters and police. In traumatic situations, our colleagues are often among those first to the scene. Many news reporters had not been exposed to trauma before covering COVID-19 in their own communities. From there they returned home worried about infecting loved ones. They were uncertain times that posed an unprecedented safety and mental health challenge to many newsrooms.
Today, many of our colleagues are exhausted; struggling with relentless workloads, breaking news, attacks on our profession; feeling untethered and uncertain; anxious about the future. The rise of online harassment is hurting us, so too is the reality of vicarious trauma. Journalism is no longer the revered profession it once was. Many of us are feeling morally compromised about some of the decisions made by our bosses, or by the institutions we represent.
Research tells us journalists are resilient. But our ability to cope has been tested over the pandemic. When we are under sustained periods of stress, things we might otherwise be able to deal with become more difficult.
Our news industry has historically conditioned us to equate admissions of vulnerability with failure. One of the things I hear most is the fear people feel that speaking about their mental health will negatively affect their careers.
This is even more acute for many people who are marginalized because of their identity or history, or for freelancers and for those new into journalism. And with financial pressures rising across the world, this is likely to be compounded.
News organizations need to reassure all staff that speaking out will not affect their careers.
Before sharing my story, I feared the repercussions. I also felt guilty, as if I had no right to feel bad when others — particularly those whose stories I shared — had experienced trauma greater than mine. I hear similar expressions of guilt, shame and comparison from colleagues. I’ve learned these are commonplace, that one person’s trauma does not invalidate another’s, and certainly should not be a barrier to seeking support.
Comparison does not help. Hearing the stories of others does. I’ve recently worked with news organizations where senior journalists have shared their experiences of PTSD, burnout, depression and anxiety. Hearing them speak in front of their peers was a profound experience, made more so when they were thanked by their colleagues for their bravery, and by those who said it helped them feel less isolated.
Whenever I ask colleagues what would improve mental health in journalism, they say hearing more stories. It’s the reason we launched our Headlines Network podcast to hear from colleagues about the stories that affected them and how they manage their mental health. For me, it’s a potent reminder that to share our vulnerabilities is a very strong thing.
The past two years have left us very disconnected. As human beings we generally thrive off interaction with others. It’s at the heart of our journalism. Empathy connects us to the subjects of our stories, to our audiences. It’s what distinguishes between us and robots, what makes us the most important resource journalism has. Empathy also helps us, but colleagues from all over the world tell me that sometimes it feels like it’s missing, and that their managers have lost sight of the fact journalists are human beings and treat them as little more than cogs in a machine.
Yet I hear from managers, and they feel underresourced, overwhelmed and isolated. Several months ago, I was speaking with industry leaders, and asked how they were. Some of them could not remember the last time a colleague had asked them.
Sometimes we all need reminding of the importance of asking someone how they are and hearing their answer. And if we can remember to do this before asking what the next story is, it can make a difference to our colleagues’ mental health. Beyond that, though, how do you have conversations with people when you’re disconnected, don’t know where to start or when you’re worried about making things worse?
Managers need more tools and training to help them gain the confidence to have these conversations. We may not be mental health experts, but some of the skills that make good journalists can help: our ability to listen nonjudgmentally, or interest in others’ stories, or empathy. At Headlines Network, we’re about to launch training for managers to help them practice these skills and learn how to deal with difficult conversations.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of effective empathetic leadership; industry bosses who are role models. But if we only focus top-down learning, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Many young journalists are extremely articulate around the language of mental health, with expectations about how newsrooms can foster their well-being. If they find these expectations unmet, we risk losing them. If we do not listen to them, we are naive.
It’s a reminder of the power of conversations within our newsrooms and the need to open up spaces where people can feel safe to talk and think about their experiences. It’s also a reminder that people should never feel compelled to speak. We all experience mental health and do so differently. Newsroom support needs to reflect that. It needs to work alongside individuals, creating a holistic framework where people recognize what coping measures they have to employ themselves and what systems exist in their workplaces to support them. Because everyone is different, news organizations cannot rely on a one-size fits all approach to mental health, but a series of resources, support networks, conversations that are inclusive, free and easily accessible.
Investing in conversations around mental health is preemptively productive and profitable. We can learn from conversations around physical safety; consider how we can better support people before, during and after stressful situations; ensure that our newsrooms have relevant support systems, training and equipment to help people understand the risks and mitigate them; cope when they are in the thick of things; and then disconnect, decompress and reconnect with others after; and make sure that journalists are also armed with an understanding of the coping mechanisms they can employ individually.
I’m convinced that investing in mental health is investing in journalism. Data may be sparse, but after two years of conversations, I know people are leaving our industry, taking time off, or working without being productive. It’s not a big leap to see how these issues relate to diversity, inclusion and retention. It’s not a big leap to see that it’s self-sabotage if we don’t invest in making our industry a kinder, more welcoming place for all.