Credit: Photo by David McCumskay on Unsplash

News leaders need to model good mental health and provide useful support structures if they want to hang onto their talent. That was a key takeaway from an online event held by the NCTJ this week.

Mental health has long been a taboo subject in journalism, where the negative impacts of reporting are often seen as part of the job. But a new generation of journalists are coming into the workforce with greater emotional intelligence and expectations for support, says Lisa Bradley, course leader at the University of Sheffield.

That does not mean sugarcoating the reality of the job. Traumatic stories from warzones and courtrooms do need to be covered. These can hit so much harder if the subjects are close to home. The toll can be minimised if reporters have effective coping strategies and techniques for the inevitable, difficult moments in their career.

This was recognised by the NCTJ when it rolled out resilience training as a mandatory requirement to complete its courses last year.

Putting mental health in the grab bag

Reuters offers hostile environment training to all of its journalists. Training used to be entirely focused on physical safety, detailing what journalists need to carry in their grab bag in the event of an emergency.

Now, the training now comprises of mental health, online and physical safety training in equal thirds - showing that the modern journalist needs a wider range of tools available at all times.

In practice, that means putting mental health in the risk assessment and going into a story or news event mentally prepared for any possible impact it may have.

The news agency has also historically offered free professional psychotherapy for any members of staff. But it found that few people were using the service, opting instead to "trade war stories at the pub", according to Rachel Wood, content strategy and planning manager of Reuters Video.

Wood is also the global co-ordinator and peer supporter of Reuters’ Peer Support Network. The Network aims to replicate pub therapy in a "healthier way", training staff to offer a certain level of peer support.

This way, even if journalists are not comfortable talking to a line manager, there is someone else in the newsroom available to speak to. That, and requests to talk about mental health will be met with empathy, not an eye roll.

Dealing with the trolls

After all, journalists are more exposed and out in the open than ever before, says Richard Duggan, Newsquest's regional editor for the North West.

He shared a disturbing personal account of an anonymous troll who said he knew where Duggan and his family lived. Though it was reported to the police, the culprit walked away with a warning and Duggan is still waiting on an apology.

The public is more emboldened to attack journalists online these days. Abuse can be especially personal for those in public-facing roles (such as television presenters) and representing multiple marginalised groups (such as women of colour, or LGBTQ+ women), says Kathryn Anastasi, deputy head of Talksport.

She admitted to intentionally avoiding posting opinions on social media as to not incite a wave of abuse, which is common in her field of sports journalism.

Ignoring abuse is the better approach, as feeding the trolls can invite pile-on of ridicule, insults and hate comments.

Leading by example

Anastasi says that her job often requires her to spend extended time away from home, doing long hours at tournaments.

This is disruptive for her routine and support network. So it is important to find pockets of time to unplug and recuperate.

It is especially important for news leaders to be modelling these healthy boundaries at work. At Reuters, its therapists talk about the "crowbar tactic" of forcing in breaks on those days when there seems to be no time to breathe or hydrate.

"Where can you crowbar in a break because that is what breaks the cumulative stress and that’s where your resilience comes from," says Wood.

Vicky Gayle, investigative journalist at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism says that the newsroom has worked hard to eliminate any shame around mental health.

Actions do speak louder than words. She has personally accessed training from Dart Centre for Journalism and & Trauma to spark conversations and create accountability on providing support. It also means the newsroom is up to date with any emerging risks to journalists.

A change of perspective

Anastasi revealed that a life-changing event has given her a new mindset. Day job decisions about producing a show seem small compared with being diagnosed with cancer.

"It just isn’t going to be that important in five years' time, in ten years' time," she says. "What’s important is my health, is that I'm enjoying my life, that I'm with my family and my friends and support system.

"What I am doing now, where is it in the context of my life? Try to give yourselves those moments through boundaries, through space."

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