It’s time for journalists to take their own mental health seriously
January 2021 brought a significant change to America. A new year, a new administration, and hopefully, a new commitment to finding common ground. Appreciating our common humanity and working together are themes echoing all around us. This sense of promise comes just a few weeks after a frightening insurrection at the Capitol and in the midst of a divided nation, with gaping wounds that remain.
As a Black woman, mother, psychiatrist and mental health policy expert, the emotional shifts and psychological impact of world events are commonly the focus of my clinical work with others. For years, the news of the day has entered the consulting room, demonstrating the very real impact of events, such as the police killing of unarmed Black men, have on the lives of those seeking mental health care.
Journalists occupy a unique position at the intersection of news, mental health, and societal norms. Those called to the profession of journalism likely have intuitive listening gifts and can easily put themself in the shoes of another — a capacity for empathy. At times, journalists have led entire nations to endure moments of collective trauma and adversity. I’m thinking here of the reporting on 9/11 and in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In that sense, journalists are not unlike mental health professionals in that they help us process emotional trauma and transform chaos into “meaning-making,” which allows others to heal.
But journalists are not likely to be trained mental health professionals, requiring each to rely on their own experiences and skills to navigate the flood of emotions that come with the work. Luckily, there are many positive coping skills that journalists can use to process difficult experiences and emotions. These can include processing difficult situations with colleagues, journaling or other self-reflective practices, attending to the body with regular exercise and a healthy diet, and investing in individual psychotherapy, which can provide a protected space to check in with your feelings and process difficult emotions with a professional.
Boundaries are a defining aspect of maintaining mental health. Setting clear boundaries with oneself and others helps to demarcate work from home life, for example. In contrast, the blurring of boundaries can make one feel that a “good journalist” will do “whatever it takes” to get the story, or that the saliency of today’s crisis eclipses the importance of other needs and relationships in our lives. When boundaries are blurred, we make choices that do not serve us well and do not honor our true priorities. To keep those boundaries firmly intact, one might consider protecting time outside of work. Although this can be difficult to carve out initially, setting aside completely work-free time daily, monthly and annually, could be a first step.
In my experience, having partners that help you consider new opportunities that come with a time commitment is also helpful. For parents, I recommend getting feedback from your children. Any way you can amplify the voice of your friends, a partner, or a child can help counterbalance the relentless demands of your work, which persistently communicates “I need you!” even when a task could be done by others.
Knowing that there is the potential for collateral damage from listening to and re-telling other’s traumatic narrative stories could help journalists — and especially journalists of color — better attend to their mental health needs. When asking, “How do I feel?” pay attention to the body as much as the mind. Stress and trauma are often held within the body and can emerge with physical pain, poor sleep, sweaty palms, and even chest pain. Feeling worn out, irritable, and losing interest in things are mental warning signs that it’s time to pause and check in. Ask yourself, “What do I need?” Is it a spa day, a restart to your exercise routine, a vacation, or a new job?
And don’t be afraid to recruit those you trust into the process. Often, they see you in distress and are waiting to be invited to share their opinion. Most importantly, don’t ignore the concerns of those who love you. Sure, they might not understand what it’s like to do what you do, but they do know you at your best.
For the past decade, I have interacted closely with journalists on the topic of mental health. First as a researcher and expert, then as a curious observer exploring the influential role of journalists on mental health. I have become increasingly concerned for the field of journalism, and journalists of color in particular. How does an education and training in journalism prepare you for the mental stress created by this work? What supports are in place from employers, or professional communities since many journalists are freelance?
All too often I find more questions than answers and more gaps than solutions. For example, only a few formal resources exist for aspiring journalists to learn about how to handle trauma and mental health issues (notable exceptions include the DART Center and the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism). Journalism programs and newsrooms rarely have significant investments in providing additional support for mental health. In addition, there is very little research conducted on journalists as a discipline with respect to mental health risk and resilience factors.
Yet a new year brings with it an opportunity to re-examine habits, release the hold of hang ups, and invigorate our hopes. One of my favorite t-shirts says: “Rest, Restore, Roar.” It is a meditation of sorts for me at times. We all wish to excel in our careers and live a life of meaning and purpose. But roaring all day, every day is exhausting. Journalists of color in particular are often burdened to carry the weight of generations along with the hopes and dreams of their family and themselves. Give yourself permission to lay that burden down, even if just for a moment. Take some time to notice how you feel in your neck and shoulders. Breathe with intention. And then text that friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with and schedule some teatime or coffee. It can be through Zoom or a masked encounter, but don’t put it off any longer.
Chances are, either you or that friend need the life-giving connection that awaits on the other side of “been too busy.” It’s a small step forward, but it might lead you down a new path of restoration, rejuvenation, and well-being.