Let’s talk about our mental wellbeing

Indonesian workers’ union Sindikasi holds gatherings for journalists and activists to talk about mental wellbeing. (Image: Sanne Breimer)
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Journalists are humans. That’s probably the biggest takeaway you’ll get from this blog post. When discussing mental wellbeing in the media, the image of what a journalist ‘should’ be is particularly challenging in getting a meaningful conversation started. Dedicated to the mission as truth-tellers, journalists are assumed to be willing to sacrifice their own wellbeing for their jobs.

“The idea is that journalism is all about going out there to cover a story, seeing bad things and coming back to report on it. But we can’t always do that”, says journalist and online digital trauma researcher Amantha Perera.

How to stay mentally healthy as a journalist is a topic that is increasingly being discussed. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our profession, journalists were struggling with trauma, stress and burnout. The current crisis makes it all the more pressing to inform all journalists about how they can take care of their own health because everybody is covering a health story that could increase their risk of trauma. 

From the conversations I had with Perera I learned that awareness about the fact that we as journalists are susceptible to trauma, to stress and to burnout is the first necessary step. Understanding that trauma and (chronic) stress have a direct impact on the quality of the profession and that journalists might turn to self-censorship, because of the stress that comes with the job, is a second point of attention.

The Centre for Investigative reporting in Sri Lanka organizes several webinars during COVID-19 about dealing with mental wellbeing

The situation in Asia brings some specific challenges to the topic. Indonesian journalist and labour union spokesperson Irine Wardhanie has told me in our conversations about the intertwined connection between politics and journalism in her country, where the code of journalism ethics doesn’t always get applied. 

Journalists in many Asian countries do not enjoy the protections afforded by Western democracies, are often attacked and threatened by political groups and may not be protected by the police or legal system. Few newsrooms in Asia have a protocol in place to cover the mental health of their staff, and media houses fall short in protecting their journalists from high-risk situations. 

There are some exceptions. The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines has one of the best trauma support programs in the region. Labour unions like the Indonesian Sindikasi support their members in starting conversations about wellbeing. And free psychological counselling projects for journalists like organized in Pakistan. These initiatives represent pioneering initiatives to address journalism mental health in Asia.

Indonesian labour union for media and industry creative Sindikasi organized gatherings in the park to discuss mental wellbeing amongst journalists

A few months ago, just before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, I started a Facebook group called ‘The Healthy Journalist’. Journalists from all over Asia and Europe are part of this group and we share tips and experiences about staying sane in the midst of this crisis.

One of the things I have learned from conversations in the group is that mental wellbeing goes beyond emotions or feelings. When we discuss our wellbeing, related topics emerge including digital hygiene and digital security, company training, access to safety gear for covering crises, and a legal support system that protects journalists from getting fired if they admit to having a mental health challenge.

I have also observed that everyone deals with trauma and stress in different ways, which means there isn’t one universal solution or approach to addressing this issue. However being able and willing to start conversations about this colleague with our colleagues and in our newsrooms is essential to raise awareness.

And now is the time to start, as the corona crisis makes all journalists frontline workers. Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma explains the urgency of this in one of the Center’s webinars: “All the research that has ever been done on trauma and journalists says that the single most important resilience factor, the thing most associated with journalists doing well in the face of trauma is social connection. And the most dangerous thing is isolation.”

All the more reason to join the masterclass ‘Mindful Mojo’ at MOJO Asia this year.

The International Journalists’ Network kickstarted the conversation about mental wellbeing with a webinar on reporting on trauma and journalist self care

About the author

Sanne Breimer

Journalist and coach

Sanne is a freelance journalist, media consultant and coach from The Netherlands and works remotely in Asia since the beginning of 2019. She worked in Dutch public broadcasting for 13 years as editor-in-chief of inclusive media company and radio station FunX, as program manager at the innovation lab NPOLab and as Head of Digital at broadcaster Human. Sanne develops courses on storytelling for journalists through and for Instagram/Facebook (stories) and founded The Healthy Journalist to open up a conversation about journalism and mental wellbeing. She advises media startups about digital strategy and is a strong advocate for inclusive journalism.