Credit: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez ???????? on Unsplash

Whether it is the pressures of the news industry, or the nature of the profession, journalists can find their mental health suffering throughout their career for a variety of reasons.

Mental health in journalism is a taboo that is slowly breaking, but newsrooms must continue to normalise these conversations. That is according to Hannah Storm, a journalist with two decades of newsroom experience, the founder and director of Headlines Network, a media consultant, and the author of a new book Mental Health and Wellbeing for Journalists.

There are of course other newsroom- and industry-wide interventions needed. But it all starts with having the compassion and confidence for colleagues to check in with each other. Without this, journalists take greater risks in their work. As the book notes: "Where journalists are not safe, journalism will see reduced performance and productivity, rising presenteeism, problems with retention and increasing costs in terms of sickness and injury, as well as increased pressure and payouts related to staff turnover."

The book is a practical, "person-centred" guide for news media professionals, educators, and students, as well as anyone interested in promoting more sustainable journalism through supporting the industry’s most precious resource: its people. spoke with Storm via email to find out more.

Q: Your book Mental Health and Wellbeing for Journalists is a practical guide to managing emotions for those working in journalism. What is the one message in this book you wish Hannah Storm just starting out in the news industry knew?

HS: From as far back as I can remember I wanted to be a journalist and by the age of 30, I had achieved my dreams of working for some of the best news organisations in the world. But I had also been conditioned by our industry to believe that journalism was my everything and that in order to keep succeeding I needed to assimilate in ways that were bad for my mental and physical health.

By the age of 30, I would endure a lot of trauma and toxic behaviour, but I kept going back into these environments, believing I was not quite good enough. It was as if my career was becoming something of an abusive relationship. It took me completely breaking down to realise that journalism was important to me, but it could not be my everything. I needed to see its importance in my life, and the important role it played in broader society, but I wish I could tell Hannah Storm, new to the industry, that journalism matters, but she matters too. 

Q: You cover a wide range of ways the mental health of journalists can be challenged through our work. Give us the main ones, which ones are real cause for concern and any changes we should be especially aware of.

courtesy of Hannah Storm (above)

HS: I think it is important to explain that journalists are, by and large, very resilient. The research shows us this. But the nature of our work means that many of us are more exposed to trauma than most of the general population. Add to this the fact that we are working in very challenging times, and cumulatively the past few years have had a real impact on the safety and wellbeing of many in our industry.

It is important to note that everyone has different experiences of mental health, but some of the key issues I see impacting our colleagues are the risks of vicarious trauma, or secondary exposure to distressing and graphic material (via different forms of media: be that video, photos, audio, written testimony, or other formats), online harassment, and burnout. I would also point to other cultural challenges and broader issues of injustice that impact people with certain identities, histories and communities, such as racial, sexual and climate inequity, and I do know that people who do not see themselves represented at the highest levels of newsrooms often feel less able to share their experiences safely and therefore feel less heard and are also at greater risk of burnout.

The changing nature of the newsrooms, resource cuts and the evolution of our industry since the pandemic have left many managers feeling caught between a rock and a hard place: feeling as if they simply do not have the tools, training or time to support the mental health of their colleagues - or their own wellbeing for that matter - while doing everything else their jobs demand of them. At the same time, I am seeing a really interesting and often challenging generational divide in terms of how mental health is viewed in the newsroom, and people's expectations.

I do feel that this is an issue that we need to address urgently, one where we can all learn from each other, and one where normalising conversations about mental health needs to go hand in hand with supporting those new to our industry with an understanding of what they might be exposed to, how they can be supported, what coping mechanisms they have, and recognising that many younger people join journalism with firm expectations that their organisations should take their mental health as seriously as their physical wellbeing - something which I feel we would all do well to acknowledge. 

Q: You also cover how the journalist’s brain can be affected by their work. Should we be worried?

HS: Let's turn this question on its head (forgive the pun), but I think we should be worried if we are not affected. Our work exposes us to some of the most extreme things that are happening in the world, and it Is normal for us to react when we are faced with trauma or danger. So we might get angry, or sad, frustrated, our heart rate might speed up, our palms might get sweaty. This is our body's in-built way of focusing on survival mode: our automatic fight, flight, freeze response. Most of the time those reactions will settle down over time.

The problem is that sometimes we are exposed to too much stress, trauma and danger, and we find ourselves in sustained survival mode, which - quite frankly - is not sustainable for our bodies or brains and might lead to longer-term problems, and that is where we should be worried.

I also hear from far too many colleagues who say they feel numb, or do not feel any more, and I worry this means that they have become dissociated by all the horrors to which they have been exposed. It is important we recognise that the nature of our work will probably expose us to difficult and dangerous things, and that our brains and bodies will react. But we also need to find ways to be aware of our bodies' reactions, give ourselves a break and understand what our personal coping mechanisms are and what we can do to turn down the temperature dial a little, either through our own practice of self-care, or finding support from others. 

Q: You have long been calling for more honest and open conversations within journalism about mental health. Simply put, why is this not a given?

HS: It is important to acknowledge that conversations have become more frequent over the past few years, however there are still significant stigmas and taboos that prevent people from being able to speak openly. Ours is traditionally a macho industry, where often certain behaviours and beats are still glamorised, reinforcing the unhealthy stereotype that it is those with the thickest skins who are the most successful. But this is unhelpful. Often those with thick skins have put on those extra layers in an attempt to suppress some of the pain of their past, and have adopted maladaptive behaviours to cope. 

Admissions of vulnerability are still sometimes seen as admissions of weakness, but I do think we are seeing a change and that when organisations create spaces where people feel safe and supported, more people will feel able to share their experiences and - in turn - others who have been through similar challenges - will feel less isolated.

I know this personally from when I shared my experience of PTSD and it is one of the reasons I do my work: as a storyteller, I am passionate about the power of stoytelling in the right places. Yes, we are often told to not become the story as journalists, but we do have our own experiences. As part of the book, I was fortunate to have conversations with more than 40 people, all of whom spoke on the record and a dozen of them agreed to allow me to share their experiences as case studies. I hope this book will help those conversations evolve.

However, it is no good talking the talk, unless you can walk the walk. One of the two things I heard time and time again from people, as I wrote the book, was that many journalists are fearful of speaking about their experiences because they worry doing so will impact their reputations, next deployment, next promotion. Leaders need to ensure this is not the case, that people feel valued and that they are able to show their humanity and for it to be received with empathy.

Q: What would be top of your wishlist for an industry-wide or newsroom-wide intervention to improve mental health in journalism broadly? 

HS: Training for managers, buy-in from senior leaders, spaces for cross-generational meetings where people can really listen to each other, sharing of stories, creating of spaces where people can intentionally come together perhaps through interest groups or peer networks, greater access to therapists who really speak the language of journalism, a recognition that journalism matters, that journalists are human beings. I am constantly surprised by the number of conversations I host or facilitate where colleagues say to me "this is the first time in 10, 20, 30 years anyone has asked me how I am and I felt like they really meant it."

Q: The topic on everyone’s lips is gen AI - do you think the advancements of gen AI will have an impact on the mental health of journalists?

HS: I feel like we are only scratching the surface in terms of what gen AI can and cannot do for our industry, and by extension the conversation about how it will impact the mental health of journalists is still in its infancy. I am not an expert in gen AI, like some of my other colleagues, but if we can really harness the positive potential of AI in reducing the workloads of journalists, and perhaps limiting exposure to some of the most graphic material we might ordinarily be exposed to, then I see that as somewhat positive. Perhaps there might also be a mechanism in which it can provide a practical tool to help us with some self-care or mental health resources. 

However, we already know that gen AI is being used to complicate journalists' work, making it much harder to verify some material, and it is being used as a weapon in online harassment too. I am not holding my breath in terms of its benefits to the mental health of journalists and I do think that, as with anything in journalism, it is a bright shiny thing that risks detracting from the people, our journalistic community, without whom there can be no human interest journalist.

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