Mental health is getting more attention in the news industry – but are self-care breaks feasible when news orgs are cutting staff left and right?

By Marcus Robertson

As humanity races toward a future with increasingly dire possibilities, journalists have a duty to ensure the public understands every facet of the most pressing issues we face.

To do otherwise is to violate the Society of Professional Journalists’ core principle, “Minimize Harm.” After all, today’s media landscape is fraught with lies, like the ongoing “stolen election” claim initiated by then-Pres. Donald Trump. If we don’t fight it, we are allowing minds to be poisoned.

But how do we find a balance when covering the relentless onslaught of doom, gloom, and tragedy? That kind of constant exposure can wreak havoc on anyone’s psychological wellbeing – but covering it is our responsibility. Are we meant to also minimize harm to ourselves?

“The data tells us that journalists are exposed to traumatic events at a higher rate than many soldiers,” clinical psychologist and trauma specialist Dr. Kevin Becker told the Poynter Institute. “As such, they are at increased risk for the mental health impacts related to the losses and tragedies associated with Covid-19.”

How often must we brush aside feelings of burnout and push on in the name of the greater good?

Within the last year, I’ve started to take my own mental health seriously. I sought out a therapist through the Jesse Brown V.A. Health Center, where I receive largely free healthcare as a veteran. I’ve diligently taken my new anti-depression medication every day, and I’ve kept all my therapy appointments.

It’s helped, but it hasn’t immunized me against the torrent of trauma I’m tasked to keep up with. Maybe reporters should periodically take a break. At the same time, that idea sounds so foreign and incongruent with success in journalism.

If all of my peers are working their asses off constantly, why do I deserve a break?

There’s a view among some in the industry of journalism as a kind of intellectual holy war against lies and injustice. If that’s the model we’re called to emulate, then perhaps we’re meant to embody what Iraq War veteran Kevin Bakker said to mewhen describing his love for those he fought for.

“If I have to choose between my life and yours, fuck you. Go live,” Bakker said. “I’m out.”

Under this view, burnout from constant trauma exposure is just a tragic fact of life on the information battlefield. I might take a bullet or two, but if I can still stand, I had better press on and keep fighting the good fight.

But perhaps it’s better to instead treat mental health and self-care like oxygen masks in an airplane – you can do more to help others if you first take the time to help yourself. I can serve the public much longer if I take the time to care for myself and come back fresh, right? After I graduate and land that job I’ve dreamt of, will I even be allowed to take breaks like that? Should I be allowed to?

I suspect no one can give a definite answer, because as the cliché goes, these are unprecedented times. There’s no roadmap for where we’re going.

Should I put my oxygen mask on before I help everyone else? I wish I could answer that.

All I know is that it’s getting hard to breathe.



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