Our journalists’ mental health needs addressing
By Judie Kaberia
The impact of what we cover, a competitive and financially troubled industry and most importantly the Covid-19 pandemic have put media workers under unprecedented strain. These have tested their psychosocial ability to cope and the capabilities of editors and associations to identify and support them.
These challenges have affected both genders in a big way but according to a global survey by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), women journalists are suffering greater stress and anxiety than their male counterparts as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, even before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry was grappling with declining advertising revenues, a disrupted digital environment, hyper-connectivity, relentless breaking news needing attention and rising cases of sexual harassment that have contributed to more women calling it a day in the profession. Covid-19 only exacerbated these as professionals found their job security in question while others struggle with how to adapt to a work from home model. Covering the pandemic, the biggest global event of our lives has been a huge challenge.
In the past ten years, there has been more focus on mental health campaigns. Conversely, I think the cases of mental health in the newsrooms are not well highlighted due to the very nature of our profession. We are expected to be macho because it is a fearless industry where only the brave dare to venture in. We walk with a badge of honour when we do the riskiest and bravest of stories. To many, being a journalist means being at the forefront of stories, some very gruelling and the expectation that we can distance ourselves from such events psychologically is a fallacy.
That said, it is very easy for journalists to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they are exposed to trauma day in, day out. This is when reporting life-threatening events ranging from drought and famine, death, floods, conflict, war and accidents because journalists are one of the early responders in tragedy.
PSTD is a serious condition that has been well known. Nonetheless, we are seeing a spike in cases of mental health issues associated with not only the frontline journalists but also all media people across the board.
Mental health illness comes with stigma because of shame and the fear of a job loss or missing out on certain newsroom assignments. Mental health issues not only affect an individual but by extension their co-workers and family. It manifests itself through concerns such as anxiety, stress, depression and vicarious distress.
Another issue that is causing emotional distress to journalists is moral injury, which is when journalists are exposed to situations where they are forced to compromise on what they consciously believe in as being right and wrong. It is associated with feelings of guilt and shame, emotions that come about when journalists are asked to do something that possibly requires them to step outside of their realms of belief.
Apart from the pandemic, one of the biggest pressures we are facing as an industry is an exhaustion of being hyper-connected and the urge to be always connected to never miss a moment. Our constant urge to be connected is affecting our mental health, forgetting that we do not need to be connected all the time.
It is important for us to urgently address the process towards a change in tune in regards to how our newsrooms address the mental health issues of our workforce. Numbers don’t lie, and the staggering cases of men and women in the press going through various forms of mental illness needs to be addressed. This will be through concerted efforts by media owners, editors and media associations and other relevant stakeholders, especially now as we grapple with a pandemic.
Let this year's mental health awareness day be a wakeup call for media houses to openly address emerging issues in the mental well-being of their staff. They need to develop awareness trainings, address triggers and seek all-inclusive discussions about policies that encourage people to share their experiences because even if journalists are by and large very resilient, their mental well-being is paramount.
The writer is Executive Director, Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK)