Job insecurity, the economic crisis, polarization of the media, growing attacks against journalists and the relentless news cycle.
These are some dynamics that have compounded in recent years, putting the mental health – and work – of media practitioners under strain.
fraycollege of Communications CEO, Paula Fray said that while good journalism remains important, the mental well being of journalists is more important than ever.
“I believe in journalism as a public good but while it is important, it is not more important than our mental health. Not all stress is bad. But, we must be able to practice self-care,” said Fray.
Premium Times publisher Dapo Olorunyomi said the mental health of journalists is central to the ability to have information that is truthful, verifiable and makes people safe in the context of the community thus should be front and centre of newsroom policies.
“Looking at the economic and public health context of the past few years, it characterises the need for mental health hygiene to be front and centre of policies in newsrooms if we’re going to be able to build great journalism,” said Olorunyomi.
The coronavirus pandemic has put media workers under unprecedented strain, testing their psychosocial conditions, scourging media workers who are highly exposed to mental health problems due to the nature of the profession.
A prevalent problematic notion is that journalists are” invisible”. Journalists are faced with the impact that world issues have on communities as they are tasked to bring that information to the audience, said African Women in Media (AWIM) CEO Yemisi Akinbobola.
There needs to be increased awareness about the trauma journalists concur from assignments and the impact that trauma has on the stories they construct, said Akinbobola.
“Journalists are there at the scene of accidents, massacres, COVID-19 deaths. I think organisations need to do a better job in both preparing journalists for that environment and also having processes like debriefing after that exposure,” she added.
Olorunyomi said that COVID-19 made for the perfect environment that ultimately puts the journalists “back against the wall”.
“Unfortunately, the events of the past decade have also seen a major attack on the industry. Now if you compound all this into context, there’s no better time than now for us to come to clear awareness that a whole lot of damage has been done to the journalist,” said Olorunyomi.
Newsroom support is crucial
Knowing the signs that signal emotional distress is important in practising mental self-care said Fray.
“We must be able to practice self-care, and know the signs of sustained stress that begin to negatively impact our mental wellbeing,” she said.
“Psychological distress can manifest as anxiety, confusion, feelings of guilt and isolation, shame, even passivity. This should not be seen as a sign of weakness,” she added.
Organisations must do more to help, that means dispelling the responsibility put on the individual journalist.
“I think it will take an organisational approach of having support processes in place and making them more accessible, in the sense that you don’t feel like if you go to get such help or engage in that, then it will not limit your chances on what you can do in the future,” said Yemisi.
Fray said mental health was hardly prioritised when she was a young reporter in pre and post-Apartheid South Africa
“I think many of us paid a price. While many of my colleagues at the time still suffer from post-traumatic stress, we now know that the work we do impacts on all our mental health,” she said.
Olorunyomi said in the past, talking about mental health was not easy because it made you look “weak”.
“We are now coming to some sense of openness about mental health disorders as a result of the profession at the realisation that if mental health is not paid attention, this job will come undone,” he said.
In some African newsrooms, mental support is being offered to media workers with the burgeoning difficulties in the industry, said Fray.
“I have been impressed by the number of media houses who have made available some form or support for their staff. I would urge anyone experiencing anxiety to reach out and ask for support,” she said.
“If your organisation does not have such facilities then reach out to journalism entities, colleagues or other support systems. It is important to not ignore the issues,” she added.
For journalists in mental distress, here are some useful resources: