Tired but can't switch off: The mental health cost of working in the media in 2020

One advice given by experts to manage pandemic-related stress is to limit news consumption – but mediapersons don’t necessarily have the option to tune out the news.
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“The pandemic has made everyone look at their priorities: people have gone back to their hometowns, to their families, and work from home means they can work from a more feasible atmospheres,” begins Smriti*. “But for most journalists, working remotely is not possible. You have to be in the thick of things.”

Smriti, who has been working with a prominent news channel in Mumbai, has had few moments of rest and respite since last year. First it was the Maharashtra government formation crisis, then protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Come March this year, COVID-19 had India in its grip. And then, actor Sushant Singh’s death, reportedly by suicide, and the spectacle that unfolded put additional pressures on broadcast journalists.

“At the beginning of the lockdown, we were constantly checking for updates – from 7.30 am to midnight, because many bulletins would come late at night,” Smriti recounts, adding that there was a time when she went for over six weeks without any weekly off.

That the pandemic has brought with it a larger mental health crisis has been acknowledged from some quarters in the last few months. Among the advice given by experts to manage stress and mental health is for people to consume the news for a short period of time and not constantly; apart from the usual precautions like staying home. However, mediapersons don’t necessarily have the option to tune out the news, and it has significantly impacted the mental health of many in the industry.

Every morning, Salman, a 27-year-old journalist, reads the news to understand the numbers. “I can’t avoid seeing them. It was scary initially that they weren’t going down. And now, there are questions about whether the numbers are accurate…There is a sense of doom, hopelessness sometimes because our families might be thinking that numbers are going down, and that threat is reducing. I am seeing and reporting on stories of the virus’s effects so closely, but how do I convince my loved ones that the threat is not over?”

“Recently, I was speaking to some of my peers, and we realised all of us have picked up some unhealthy habits. I eat some candy, or some sweets every day. A colleague who had given up aerated drinks for years is now taking them. Our minds are seeking some sort of coping mechanism and comfort,” Smriti says.

Increased anxiety, self-doubt

Smriti says that when the lockdown happened, media organisations and journalists had two approaches. “One thought was that journalists need to be out and about because this is probably the biggest event in decades. The other was since we do not have the protection of essential service providers, we should stay in.”

However, mediapersons were affected no matter what approach they, or their organisations, took. Before he moved back to Coimbatore, Salman was working from home in Bengaluru. The isolation and not being able to go to work and being around colleagues got to him. “There was also mental burnout from just sitting in front of the screen, as well as alarmist and negative news consumption. I’ve been seeing a therapist since I was in class 10 and was doing better after 6-7 year of therapy and medication. But the lockdown happened, and it felt like I had been set back by all those years. I went back on medication after 1.5 years, and developed sleeping issues.”

“We could not travel, could not go to meet officials, couldn’t hang out with other reporters. I ended up doubting my ability to do a story and questioning my judgment because I could not sit at home and decide on a story,” adds Rupesh*, who has been working as a journalist in Hyderabad for a decade.

For Soma Basu, an independent journalist and researcher, this time marked the return of her panic attacks. “There was a sense of helplessness at not being able to do much. If I couldn’t go out on the ground, I was not sure I could come back with a good story. Initially, some of my friends did go out to report but they were beaten up. I would see the news every day and think about all the stories that should be done but aren’t. It was frustrating… And because I had covered conflict and migration, I felt even more helpless that I could not do much even as lakhs of people were taking arduous journeys home on foot.”

Smriti points out that this time was especially difficult for broadcast journalists who work as a pack. “The only person we saw was the driver and cameraperson. You cannot meet the other journalists who cover your beat. You cannot go to the office because you may have been exposed to the virus while reporting. On top of that, many of us started isolating, staying separately from our families and loved ones because we did not want to expose them to the virus.”

Increased pressure, fear of losing jobs

While many journalists felt the pinch of not being able to go out and report, those who were afraid of contracting the virus found themselves unable to refuse editorial demands for the fear of pay cuts, job losses and the fear of not finding another.

Shantasree, who is presently on a break, recalls the time she had a breakdown and took the decision to quit the national media channel she was working with, six years into the profession.

“Our editors failed to understand that being demanding at this time was not healthy. When the Sushant-Rhea debacle was happening, I had to report for three days without an ounce of sleep. It depleted my resources mentally. The type of coverage we were asked to do was also unethical, voyeuristic, and made me question my purpose as a journalist. I became extremely anxious and guilty, and had a breakdown,” she tells TNM.

Meghna Mukherjee, a psychoanalytical psychotherapist and the founder of Engaging Circle, has noticed that many of her clients – 40% of whom are mediapersons – were triggered by the media coverage around Sushant’s death. “Besides, the overall environment is becoming so polarized and intolerant that young journalists especially are undergoing a lot of emotional bruising. If they work in organisations where the narrative they are made to take clashes with their moral compass, or if their seniors say something to that effect, they take it quite personally and find it difficult to cope,” she says.

Before the pandemic, Shantasree had covered the Delhi riots, and the anti-CAA NRC protests, including at Shaheen Bagh. The emotional and mental toll of covering such key and traumatic incidents in history contributed to her needing a break too, she admits. “I am lucky to be able to afford to quit and take a break. So many of my colleagues that I speak to are depressed because of job losses, or because they are in fear of having to report consistently from hospitals, COVID-19 affected areas and so on.”

“Among print journalists, there is absolute dread of losing jobs,” Meghna adds. “Since there has been downsizing, many have found their workload increased substantially, but are unable to complain for fear of being let go.”

She has also noticed that as time has passed, many people in the media have started using denial to cope. “There’s an attitude of we’ll see what happens because there isn’t a solution in sight. There is a feeling of being stuck. There are increasing diagnoses of depression, anxiety and self-harm tendencies as well as disillusionment with the profession. It’s quite heartbreaking, because the people who have the power to be read by lakhs are not able to get help for what they are feeling internally.”

What journalists and their organisations can do

Most of the journalists that TNM spoke to said that at worst, there was no acknowledgement from their organisations about the mental health impact of this time, and at best, the organisations had a counsellor on call on-board or had increased the frequency of emails to remind employees of this service. Some, like Salman’s organization, had started insisting that they log off on time, and share videos of them working from home with the team so as to boost morale.

Overall, even before the pandemic, media organisations have not really had a culture of taking mental health seriously. Soma points out that though over the past few years, editors ask for columns on mental health, newsrooms generally are high stress spaces where abuse and bullying continue to be normalised. “This leads to a lot of anxiety. And if you complain about mental health then people make fun of you. It is harder for women. Already we deal with stuff like unsolicited messages from senior editors on social media – as Me Too made amply clear – but if we want to talk about trauma of covering ‘hard’ beats like conflict, then people – including families – say we should not have gone out and covered dangerous topics.” So, now that a few media organisations do have counsellors on call and such, Soma says that employees may still hesitate to avail services due to the culture, as well as fears of the HR monitoring.

Having also freelanced in the past, Soma points out that the pandemic has exacerbated freelancers’ situation – such as uncertainty or delay in payments – and subsequently their mental health. Opportunities are even harder to come by now, given that organisations are conserving their resources, have suffered losses and have downsized.

While the situation appears bleak, there are some things that journalists can do to better care for their mental health at this time. Meghna advises that they have a robust support system of people whom they regularly speak to, whether to vent or simply catch up. “Even if you have just one weekly off, make it a point to read or watch things or do activities that are unrelated to your work.”

As for organisations, Meghna says that they should ensure that journalists get time off – even if it is once a week – and to respect the sanctity of that down time by not asking them to come in. “It’s good if organisations have a counsellor on board. One thing that could really help are periodic group therapy sessions. It allows the counsellor to also work more efficiently and can become a safe space for journalists and editors to talk. Ultimately, if the organization also wants the employees to be productive, this is a good way to make them feel held and heard.”

*Names changed 

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