October 10, 2019 (Updated )
It doesn’t matter who you are, we can all relate to the stresses and strains of working life. And, although for many journalism can be a rewarding and challenging career path, journalists know all too well about working under pressure in newsrooms and as busy freelancers.
Today (Thursday, October 10) marks World Mental Health Day, and all over the world and the internet, people are taking time out to have vital discussions on the continuing fight against mental illness. But among all the noise, we wanted to create a space for the many journalists who grapple with mental illness on a daily basis.
To get the lowdown, we spoke with experts about their personal experiences, what journalists should be wary of, and what needs to change in industry to protect us.
A Complex And Unique Set Of Issues For Journalists
Some of the mental health difficulties journalists face aren’t specific to working in the media, but the high pressure environment can certainly cause its own problems.
A 2001 study revealed that a staggering 85 percent of journalists experience work-related trauma with up to 20 percent experiencing depressive symptoms – and almost a third show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These numbers may be surprising, but when you consider the complex and difficult topics which news journalists face on a daily basis – natural disasters, war zones and human suffering to name just a few – you can imagine the toll it can take on even the most stoic person.
For those with existing mental illnesses, the newsroom can be a tough place to work. Esther Beadle was working at the Oxford Mail when her Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) caused her to have a breakdown.
“The working conditions really exacerbated the underlying mental health problems that I had,” she told Journo Resources. Namely, she recalls the fact that her newsroom, along with hundreds of others like it were being “cut to the bone” in terms of staffing numbers, with no respite from the amount of work to be done.
“The demand for print and digital increases massively, so you need to get out the same amount of content and stories yet with half the staff,” she adds, something which she claims causes a large number of trainees to leave journalism at an unsustainable rate.
It can also lead to burnout with journalists like Laura Garcia, a former Assistant News Editor at Channel 5 turned university lecturer, developing unhealthy ‘workaholic’ tendencies.
“I always felt proud of my commitment to work, it’s just now that I’m starting to realise how unhealthy that relationship is.
“A normal day can be a 10, 12, or 14 hour shift and there’s that mindset of ‘the news doesn’t stop so why should we?’”
‘It Would Get To 4pm And I Would Burst Into Tears’
For freelancers, the issues are different to those of staffers. Those who work from home experience detachment and loneliness and a difficulty to separate career-worth from self-worth.
Jenny Stallard, who hosts Freelance Feels, a podcast about the trials and tribulations of freelancing, explained that the combination of a feast-to-famine workload and a lack of financial flow or routine led her to struggle with her emotions.
“I was quite tearful a lot of the time. It would get to 4pm and I would burst into tears because I just felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. You almost forget to do the self-care until it reaches a crisis point.”
Despite spending several years freelancing, the problems that Jenny and many other freelancers face remain, meaning imposter syndrome can set in after a while. “I was looking at my portfolio online and thinking ‘I’m a fraud.’ You see all the experience on paper and think ‘why aren’t I nailing this?’”
The unstable nature of freelance finances only serves to add to the anxiety of the lifestyle. Following up on unpaid invoices have driven journos like Jenny to distraction in the past. “Staffers do not have to check if they’re getting paid on their payday. The time and energy you spend chasing payments could be spent building relationships, writing or doing something for yourself.”
‘One Of The Things We Struggle To Teach Is Work/Life Balance’
It stands to reason that dealing with mental health issues over a long period eventually becomes untenable. But in an industry as competitive and fast-paced as journalism, nobody wants to fall behind or be seen as not able to keep up. The question for many is how can you keep your mental health in balance whilst continuing to work, and when is it appropriate to take a break?
Laura, who now teaches multimedia journalism at the Centre for Journalism in Kent, says the importance of taking breaks is one of the hardest things to impress upon students.
“One of the things we struggle to teach is work-life balance. Having a good work-life balance makes us happier people and therefore better journalists. We are more capable of telling people’s stories well if we are well ourselves.”
Certainly, there’s evidence to suggest that breaks help with dealing with trauma. Laura was at Channel 5 during the Bataclan shootings and admits that it gave them “a reason in newsrooms to talk about whether people need to take a break and if it’s affecting us.”
Laura also warns her students against perfectionism, reminding them that even Van Gogh did 50 to 60 drafts before revealing a masterpiece. “There’s this myth with journalists like artists where we assume that they’re either good at it or not. It takes a lot of bad work to produce something good. Not everything you write is going to be good but the more you do it, you will get better.”
As a freelancer working from home, Jenny employs numerous different techniques to keep mental illness at bay. She says she has benefitted from seeking professional help, though often it isn’t as simple as being immediately referred by a GP.
She took matters into her own hands, first in small ways like mood boards, light exercise, and blogging, which helped her find community. “I started blogging about it because I thought I’d try and make sense of it for myself, and the more I did that the more people started saying to me ‘You’re saying what I’m thinking.’”
Jenny also realised that despite the competitive landscape of freelancing day-to-day, it was okay to turn down work for sanity’s sake. “Day-to-day, it’s about sticking to your routine and having the courage to say ‘I’m not going to pitch to them anymore because working with them is too stressful.’”
‘There Should Be A Culture Of Collectiveness’
There’s plenty that journalists can do to take matters into their own hands when it comes to mental health. However, it’s unfair to say that the onus should be completely on those struggling with mental health issues. We all do the best we can, but without real change at the structural and organisational level, there’s only so much we can do to protect ourselves.
A seldom spoken-about topic, picked up on by Laura, is how diversity in newsrooms can actually help those struggling to cope. Speaking particularly on gender, she said, “Women have socially been allowed to talk about their feelings for a long time, so having them in newsrooms helps with opening up those conversations, which also helps men say what they’re feeling.” You have to imagine that more representation of marginalised groups in newsrooms would help LGBT+, BAME and disabled journalists to share the mental illness burden too.
On the subject of sharing the burden, Esther – also now a lecturer at Newcastle University – said that she encourages her students to work together and thinks companies should do the same. “I think there needs to be a culture of collectivism in the newsrooms. Anything where you can get the reporter together and build up a sense of team.”
Crucially though, according to Esther, there needs to be investment from the top down to improve the condition of mental health in journalism. “There are little things we can do to improve culture, but all of them require resources. You need staff with the right attitude.”
Unfortunately, there is a long way to go for the industry. But by journalists looking out for their colleagues, understanding employers, and continuing to push for a more diverse media we can keep the industry moving in the right direction so that everyone can receive the support they need in the newsroom.