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January 11, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 10:54am

‘The more conversations we have, the more openly we talk’: Tackling newsroom mental health stigma and shame

By Hannah Storm and John Crowley

Nearly two years into the global pandemic and many journalists are feeling exhausted. We are entering 2022 with a sense of uncertainty, after an unprecedented period which has impacted the mental health of many in the news media.  

In late 2021, Headlines Network launched a pilot project, offering free workshops for colleagues across the UK at different stages of their careers. More than 120 journalists from diverse backgrounds, media and geographical regions participated in the programme.  

Over four weeks, we offered a space where they could convene with peers to have conversations about mental health, share experiences and pick up practical tips from experts and colleagues on how to manage their well-being and that of others.  

For many who took part, it was the first experience they had like this. One attendee told us: “In my 30 years in the news business, this was the first time I’ve seen the issue of journalists’ mental health properly addressed. These were very practical sessions led by people who know about mental health but also understand the pressures of working in a newsroom.”

Journalists who attended our workshops also spoke about the lack of available training for managers to support their own wellbeing and that of their colleagues.

One participant summed up something we heard frequently, when they said: “One thing is clear – newsroom leaders need to be better trained in mental health first response and take this topic as seriously as anything else that is crucial to having a thriving news organisation.” 

Many more told us the workshops – made possible with the partnership of the Google News Initiative – helped them feel less isolated, and that hearing from others encouraged them to share their stories, more broadly tackling some of the barriers that prevent journalists from speaking out.  

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We know four weeks cannot provide all the solutions to the stressors faced by our colleagues, or end the stigma, shame and taboos that exist. We want to ensure our work is sustainable, that it continues to offer a community of support, promote much-needed conversations, and provide practical resources for journalists on how to help themselves and others.  

This is what we will be focussing on this year: training, tips and talking. 

Mental health challenges in the newsroom

There’s an oft-repeated phrase that good journalists don’t make good managers, and yet good journalism requires empathy, if we are to create cultures where our colleagues feel safe and supported.  

This year, we will be collaborating with colleagues to design and develop training for managers to help them support their staff and ensure they are well-placed to manage their own mental health and navigate the challenges of today’s newsrooms.  

Empathy lies at the heart of the work we do at Headlines Network, and we are committed to continuing the conversation, connecting with a wider network and creating a space where people feel heard and safe. We are in the early stages of an exciting project which we believe will allow to reach more journalists internationally.  

We are also developing practical resources, and aim to be able to offer tailored support to newsrooms.  

We know some of the best journalism thrives off empathy – connections with the people whose stories we tell. All too often though, we do not employ the same levels of empathy for ourselves and those around us.  

We also believe there is a connection between the content we create and the cultures of our newsrooms. Journalists can shape public discourse. It makes sense that we support the mental health of those who shape messages about these very issues. This is one of the reasons why we are delighted to have been working with the mental health charity Mind and we are excited to continue to do so this year. 

Throughout our courses, we heard from participants about their desire for practical advice they could easily integrate into their lives. We will be offering practical resources, including hacks and tips throughout the year, but for now we asked the experts who joined us for our workshops for their insights as we look ahead to 2022. 

‘Be kinder to ourselves and show compassion to others’

Dr Sian Williams, who joined us in week one of our workshops, offered her suggestions as a broadcaster and counselling psychologist. 

“I know how important our mental health is, but how little attention we can also pay to it, especially in a time of uncertainty,” she said. “Recognising that, being a bit kinder to ourselves and showing compassion to others who are struggling is vital to protect both our wellbeing and theirs. 

“The more conversations we have, the more openly we talk with others, the more honestly we address strengths and frailties, both as organisations and individuals, the stronger we’ll all become.”  

Charlotte Armitage runs Cast Care Clinic, which provides expert psychological care for people in the media industry, and supported our session on workplace boundaries, along with colleague Dr Mo Qadri who presented during the week. 

“Routine and stability are the bedrock of healthy psychological functioning so finding a stable routine can support our mental health significantly. This doesn’t necessarily mean making huge changes rapidly because this can become overwhelming. By making gradual changes, it can facilitate achieving the desired behavioural changes in a way that feels comfortable, smooth and seamless,” said Armitage.  

Andrew Berrie, the mental health at work lead for the charity Mind, joined us for one of the week’s set of workshops. Asked for his advice to journalists at the start of 2022, he said: “With the rise of coronavirus omicron cases and increased restrictions, many of us may be beginning the year with greater levels of anxiety.

“It might be useful to reflect on what is in your control, what you are able to influence and what is outside of your control when considering how you might seek to manage any stress you might be experiencing.”

While routine and stability can sometimes feel anathema to the world of journalism which centres around extraordinary events, it’s important to note that certain routines and stability are possible, despite the nature of the news industry.  

The start of a year often heralds a time for reflection and resolution. However, there’s also a danger we set our expectations too high, resolve to make unrealistic changes, and that we set off at a speed that is ultimately unsustainable. This is particularly the case now, when we are carrying the weight of the past two years.

Many of our workshop conversations around mental health at Headlines Network came back to what we could control or influence. By reminding ourselves of this, we believe we can set the foundations for something more sustainable, where we can support others as well as ourselves. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the phrase mental health begins with the two letters: me.

Headlines Network comprises of founder Hannah Storm and John Crowley. Over the last two decades they have led newsrooms, journalism safety charities and run news sites. Both are qualified mental health first aiders and bring knowledge and lived experience around mental wellbeing.

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