MENTAL HEALTH IS AT RISK WITHOUT FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

Post Florencia Pagola

In Latin America and in the world, there are very few studies and specialists who investigate the relationship between mental health and journalism. But the few that exist are conclusive when they say that journalism is a risky profession for the mental health of those who practice it.

This risk can be aggravated when a person, in addition to practicing journalism, is a woman, LGBTIQ+, Afro, indigenous or elderly; lives in a country with high corruption or under a totalitarian regime; practices journalism in a capital city or in the interior of the country; covers issues of corruption or violence against women.     

On International Press Freedom Day, this article will delve into a topic that is little talked about: why mental health in journalism is so neglected and what strategies are being implemented to take care of it.

A public health problem

The Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja in Ecuador investigated how the pandemic affected frontline risk groups such as health personnel and journalists. Byron Fernando Bustamante, one of the researchers, realized that journalists were the most invisible and vulnerable group.

The research focused on journalists from Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru, and showed that they present high risks of somatization, anxiety, insomnia and depression. The figures are alarming, according to this article. 

Towards the end of 2023, Bustamante said in an interview that one of the factors that generates vulnerability in journalism is “working against time”, referring to the deadline or delivery time of an article or report. Also, being exposed to the “red chronicle”, in relation to police or violence issues.

Moreover, the researcher said that the problem with those who practice journalism is that, unlike health personnel who have a “system that historically protects them”, media managers are not taking responsibility for the effects of their work on their mental health.

But this is not only a problem of those who cover the red chronicle or go to war. María Miret García is a Spanish journalist who stopped working in more than one media due to anxiety, and became a journalist specialized in journalists’ mental health. 

She told IJNet’s Pamela Howard Global Crisis Forum how work-related stress affects those who work in journalism: “It has become normalized that in a newsroom everyone takes sleeping pills. It is not understood that it is a mental health problem and a public health problem”. The journalist emphasized that the stress of daily coverage, the stress of every day, little by little, becomes “immediate”.

García listed the factors that most negatively affect the mental health of those who work in journalism:

  • The high work demands.
  • The immediacy of the news or the pressure to get the job done quickly.
  • The precariousness of journalistic work.
  • The lack of good working conditions in newsrooms.
  • Lack of support for journalists from media managers.
  • The widespread idea of the “24-hour” or “all-terrain” journalist.
  • The mental health of young female journalists.

The Spanish journalist said that there is also a generational difference in mental health. The millennial generation, unlike previous generations, has no problem asking for help and talking about it. At the end of 2023, as part of the research that gave rise to this article, young Latin American female journalists were interviewed to find out about their experiences of mental health in relation to their profession.

Francis Peña is a 27-year-old Venezuelan journalist who covered politics for several years for her country’s media. At some point in her career she felt “too burdened” and began to feel the need to practice journalism in a way other than exposing herself in demonstrations and risking her health. 

Eventually she gave up journalism to become a freelancer and do more relaxed stories. In the process, she created the newsletter Una Jeva Normal, which she promotes as a safe space to talk about mental health from her experience as a journalist. She said: “I had the impulse to continue doing journalism, so I created the newsletter. I did it for myself, I needed answers, I wasn’t crazy and I hadn’t thrown my future and my career out the window. I felt guilty about leaving journalism at that moment”.

For Peña, the responses from fellow journalists to the newsletter were surprising. “They had the same disenchantment as I did, that heaviness of always covering sadness and misery, human rights violations. There comes a moment when you feel that it is morbid, that why do you cover it so much”. 

When Peña described the symptoms that made her realize she needed a change in the way she practiced journalism, she spoke of how she “felt rushed all the time” because she had to be aware of everything that was happening in her country. Then she began to feel disinterested in her work, it no longer seemed important to her and, later, she began to feel very tired. Typical symptoms of burnout. 

Indira Rojas, a Venezuelan journalist who works for a local digital media, agreed that the daily coverage is very hard: “Fears and anguish have been created in me from what I see, and a feeling of impotence of not being able to change the reality in a country where the institutions are taken over”. She, who covers issues related to violence against women, said that hearing and seeing the experiences of other women impacts her as a woman. “They are things that could happen to me, that generates fears, concern and anxiety,” she said. 

At 33 years old, Rojas said she cannot lead an independent life and own her own home because her salary is not enough. She considered that one of the factors that has most affected her mental health is job insecurity. “Having the civic life that we all pursue, having a house of our own has become a privilege. That affects my emotional and mental health.”

The problem is that all this is not talked about in the Latin American media, or was not talked about. Rojas said that he was trained in media where spending more time at the computer or on the street makes you a better journalist. “A criterion of giving your life and your time to do that role, I have learned that it hurts our jobs and personal life,” he added. 

From Peru, journalist Elizabeth Salazar shared a similar idea: “My generation is the 24/7 journalist who cannot disconnect. That journalism is an apostolate and that we have a job above what we may feel as people”. 

To get away from this imposition, like Peña, Salazar decided to quit his job as a journalist in the editorial office of a digital media in his country and become a freelancer. “I wanted to take time for projects, but also to take the breaks I needed, I have to do things for myself. We are humans, not information production machines and that doesn’t have to make us lower quality journalists,” he explained.

In this process, Salazar said she changed her priorities, learned to listen to her body and mind to know when she needs help, support and to stop. 

The counter to the idea that journalists are not machines appears in those who speak openly about mental health. In Peña’s words, it is the need for the media and its managers “to see you as a human being and not a machine that writes and tells stories all day long”. And for García, directly, “the media are machines for crushing journalists”.  

The dancing journalist

“We have become accustomed to the fact that the journalist’s identity is tied to that, that you are a journalist. You forget that you can exercise your identity in other ways. I found in dance a strategy to help my mental health, I realized that I could be the journalist who dances and not just the journalist,” said Rojas. 

The strategies used by the people interviewed for their emotional and mental wellbeing are varied. Some of the ones they mentioned are: 

  • Doing physical exercise.
  • Taking days off and vacations.
  • Build a support network to turn to for help and genuine listening.
  • If possible, access psychological therapy.
  • In spare time, read articles/books or watch movies/series on topics that are not necessarily part of your agenda, especially if they are children’s literature.
  • Write about journalism and mental health. Like Peña, García manages one that he called Almas Rotas (Broken Souls).
  • Use time management tools (for freelance work), take breaks during work, get up from your chair at certain intervals.
  • Regulate notifications from social networks, even disconnecting for as long as necessary.
  • Have a time limit in the day to finish work and disconnect.
  • Journalism and media schools promote preventive training for self-care in mental health and that the media provide psychological support to their workers, according to researcher Bustamante.