Credit: Leona O'Neill (above)

Witnessing a murder of a colleague is one of the hardest events a journalist could possibly deal with.

Shock, sadness, anger and "what-ifs" follow. What if it was me that day? What if I have moved differently? What if it will be me next time?

Leona O'Neill, journalism lecturer at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, has a first-hand experience of this trauma. She was there when the Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee was shot while covering riots in the Creggan estate in Derry in 2019.

O'Neill spent more than two decades working as a freelancer for the likes of Belfast Telegraph and Irish News, often covering violent news stories. Although she was a hard-nosed journalists, this event tipped her over the edge and she ended up changing her career.

In a new book she co-authored with Chris Lindsay, Breaking: trauma in the newsroom, she and 15 journalists talk about their mental health journey and the struggles they went through when dealing with trauma in their work.

Speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast, O'Neill said that after McKee's murder, she was on autopilot most of the time. She was not able to talk about the murder she witnessed, not wanting to tap into that emotion. Even when she tried, she would just start to cry. So she found writing her chapter therapeutic as she was finally able to process the weight of that day's events.

A common thread that emerged from the book is that it is not always a particular event that pushes the journalist past the tipping point. For years, we witness the worst of humanity - tragedies, accidents, wars, murders yet we just plough on.

But trauma does not give you a heads-up. It can break you at any moment. Journalists often do not notice how covering traumatic stories chip away at their mental health. We absorb graphic details and filter them for the public. The words and images stay in our heads though and we may not realise how they impact us until it is too late. And when mental health starts spiralling, we feel like we are the only ones in the world dealing with the weight.

While working with other journalists on her book, O'Neill said she did not feel lonely anymore as she discovered many journalists were also 'broken by the news'. And when the book was published, many more got in touch saying they felt the same.

"Journalists are a big tribe," she says. "We speak each other's language, we understand each other in a way that other people can't. We understand how we think. We understand how we act."

In her case, it was the murder of Lyre McKee that tipped her over the edge. But some journalists only start to deal with trauma when they retire and the gloom comes back to haunt them.

Newsrooms are often macho environments, where journalists are asked to "put up or shut up". Unlike emergency workers who get support when dealing with human drama, journalists are just expected to move from one gory story to another. And most do, amid fears of it affecting job security or coming across as weak.

But we need to normalise conversations about mental health in the newsroom. Although some bigger news organisations have mental health support, smaller newsrooms cannot afford it.

This is false maths though: journalists being off sick with stress, or changing careers altogether because they cannot take it anymore, can be much costlier, O'Neill continues.

Even today, when journalists deal with trauma, they are still very much on their own. Although the past few years saw new sources of help emerge, for instance Headlines Network, there is still not a one-stop shop for all forms of mental health support, providing psychological and financial help, or safety and legal advice if they are harassed or threatened.

Support is out there if you know where to look, but it is stressful to seek support across a fragmented set of organisations. It is no substitute for more robust help, but we put together a list of places and resources journalists can tap into when they struggle with mental health.

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