Mental health Insight

Mental Health in the Newsroom

On 10th November 2020, I was part of a Society of Editors discussion on Mental Health in the Newsroom. You can catch up on the discussion here, but here’s a lightly edited version of my opening remarks.

Let’s not beat around the bush here, there is a mental health crisis in society, and journalists aren’t immune to that. In fact, I’d easily go so far as to say that doing this job often puts as at greater risk of mental health difficulties than the general population – and that’s why it’s so important that we can have these conversations,  because I hope we all want to do better – both for those dealing with mental health issues in newsrooms right now, and also wherever we can, to make it less likely that journalists we work with will end up suffering from mental health conditions.

Now I’m under no illusions that that’s easy – big issues aren’t solved by tinkering around the edges. Big problems need solutions that take a really fundamental approach and part of that is, frankly, re-examining the structural issues in our industry and thinking about how we can reconfigure it to do better for both our colleagues and our audiences.

What I’m going to bring here is drawn from my journalism experience sure – but largely my work in counselling and community organising, where all your thinking has to be completely person-centred and not organisation or newsroom centred.

So, to start with, we HAVE to remember that mental health issues aren’t an HR problem or even a PR problem, they’re a human problem and what I want to talk about is how we go about putting an essential “humanity” into both our input and, frankly our output.

As part of that, I want to make it clear that this isn’t just about what editors or managers should be doing, and how you’re doing this all wrong, because clearly editors and managers can have mental health difficulties too. And I think it’s really important to recognise that, because I think it’s also true to say that it can be particularly hard for newsroom leaders to acknowledge that or talk about it, and the culture that makes that hard is, frankly, inhumane.

So, we need to think about what we can do to change that culture and remove the stigma and I think that’s just about being honest, open and trusting each other. In that spirit of open-ness, I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety for most of my life. I had one particularly bad episode where I was – let’s say “invited” – to stay in a residential clinic for a few weeks – really for my own safety.

In the end I was off work for about 3 months but when I went back, I found that people had been told I had “a virus”. Now that made things difficult for me of course, because I then had to explain that I’d had serious depression, not a virus, and all the stuff about the clinic etc. But perhaps even more importantly, what that said was the organisation felt that having a mental health condition was embarrassing and something to be covered up. That gave me a very clear picture of how they felt about me and what I’d been through, and I think we need to do a lot better than that.

That intrinsic journalism culture stuff also interacts really deeply with the questions of inclusion that people are wrestling with right now – in many cases, way too late if we’re completely honest. When I started in journalism most newsroom leaders were the kind of white middle-aged men who’d never put a wash on or cooked the dinner. Obviously, that’s changed loads…

But right now, if we’re GENUINELY committed to bringing in different perspectives and experiences to our industry, then we’re going to have to acknowledge some of those DIFFERENT experiences – some of which may have been experiences of trauma. Say, hypothetically, you’re a young journalist of colour who’s previously been the victim of a racist attack – it might not be healthy or desirable for you to cover a court case about a racist attack. Right now, I’m concerned that many newsrooms will not have either a culture or mechanisms through which a young journalist could say that, and even fewer in which it wouldn’t adversely affect their career – either consciously or unconsciously.

Now I know there are people here doing great work on both mental health and inclusion, but, I think we do need to be honest about that and really reflect, because I know those macho, “get on with it or get out – there are a hundred people lining up to take your job” kinda attitudes do still exist to greater or lesser extents in much of our industry and if we’re serious about mental health and inclusion again, we need to do better.

I do also think that these issues of mental health aren’t somehow separate from the content we produce, and we also have to be responsible about the impact it can have on our readers and viewers. Some of you will perhaps have read about some of the work I’ve been doing on the fundamentals of journalism and storytelling, and central to that is thinking about why we do the stories we do, how we do them and if, ultimately, they help our audiences understand the world better.

As an example, but this isn’t the only example – let’s look at all the crime coverage we do. Why do we do so much reporting on crime? What’s the response we’re trying to elicit from readers and viewers – honestly?

That’s one side, but also, if it’s an individual crime, if it’s not something systemic or part of a pattern – how much of our crime reporting actually goes much beyond shock or prurience. That has an impact on journalists, emotionally detaching ourselves from those stories isn’t SOLVING the problem, it’s just storing it up for down the line. But it also has an impact on our audiences…news avoidance is a growing issue, and it’s a problem for our industry, but it’s largely one of our own making. The stories we do and, more importantly the way we do them are causing us and our audiences emotional pain, and we – completely rationally – don’t want that. I am absolutely NOT saying we should somehow sanitise the news, but I think we can be more careful about which stories we do, how we do them and I think we can be much more honest about our motivations when we’re making those choices.

So, as I say, everything good I’ve learnt from counselling – both giving and receiving it – is that honesty and humanity are crucial. Some would say those are the bedrock of journalism too. If we can start to reconnect those, then I think we’re on the way to making our industry more mentally healthy.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.