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Credit: Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

When we talk about mental health risks associated with journalism, most will think of PTSD brought on by conflict and war reporting.

That absolutely does happen but mental health is a much broader issue. In times of working from home and a global pandemic, journalists and newsroom leaders must realise how vulnerable we all may be.

"We are storytellers ourselves so we need to find the right words," says Hannah Storm, CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network, in a podcast with Journalism.co.uk.

Storm has been vocal about her own mental health journey, from being diagnosed with a complex PTSD through to a mixture of experiences in her personal and professional life.

Getting the language right

We need the correct vocabulary to talk about other risks to mental health and well-being, such as anxiety, stress and depression. Importantly, many journalists suffer from moral injury, which Storm describes as "something which happens to someone and is not their fault."

Just as physical injuries are not (always) your fault, framing mental health problems as something that happens to you - not something that is caused by you - makes the world of difference for struggling journalists, just as it did for Storm.

"For a long time I felt a huge degree of shame around my experiences," she explains. "Like I was somehow to blame for what happened to me."

She is now making positive progress through therapy and has continued to lead the charge for better awareness around mental health in news teams.

Newsrooms, for most of 2020, have looked very different to usual though. Many of us continue to work from home, keep touch with colleagues on Zoom, and stare at the same four walls all the time.

Mental health while working from home

Storm describes this dynamic as being 'disconnected yet hyper-connected', recognising the fatigue brought by the video chat platforms while experiencing the classic 'fear of missing out'. Being bombarded with constant and relentlessly negative news, combined with the very real risk of catching the virus, leaves us feeling anxious and exhausted.

"Covering covid-19 is impacting on everybody but there is an element of it being an invisible threat," Storm says.

"That can be very destabilising for your mental health and when you are working, living, sleeping and eating in the same environment, that can be really destabilising too."

Moral injury an local journalism

Storm worked with Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and director of the Neuropsychiatry Programme at Sunnybrook Health Science Centre, on the emotional toll on journalists covering the refugee crisis. The report assessed what impact the 2015 refugee humanitarian crisis had on those covering it..

It found that while journalists were generally resilient to the event, local Greek journalists showed significant levels of moral injury, described as a 'bruise on the soul' and feelings of guilt and shame.

"Moral injury is not a mental illness, but left unchecked, it can deteriorate and people can experience acute emotional stress," Storm explains, adding that something similar could be happening to local journalists covering covid-19.

Raising the flag and seeing the signs

It begs the question how we survive the here and now. Raising the flag is not simple in a newsroom that has traditionally reinforced the culture of "it's not cool to talk about vulnerability" and "put up or shut up". On top of that, unhelpful coping mechanisms, such as excessive drinking or risky behaviour, are often modelled by the senior management.

Unique to covid-19 are the economic factors in newsrooms, marked by staff redundancies and the uncertain future of existing revenue models. Many journalists fear for their job security and being perceived as a liability if they speak out.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in better self-care and team support. Be more strict with personal boundaries and knowing when to call it a day. It is also necessary to regularly remind yourself of the importance and the impact of your work to boost your feeling of self-worth.

It is not as easy to spot mental health problems in others based on Zoom calls, but look out for subtle changes in tone of voice, speed of talking, concentration levels and sudden emotional shifts.

Storm suggests creating regular check-ins, actually listening to our colleagues and avoid inundating them with questions. In many newsrooms, there has been little to no physical interactions since the beginning of the pandemic. Do not let this fall by the wayside and try to interact with your colleagues wherever and whenever you can.

Make workshops, policies and training readily available, as well as 24/7 helplines and peer-to-peer networks if possible.

"Show people that you care in a way that they don't feel overwhelmed but are comfortable to come forward," Storm concludes.

Hannah Storm is talking more about improving mental health in the newsroom at our next Newsrewired conference. Join us for the four-day event starting from 1 December 2020. Visit newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets

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