Taking care of yourself: Mental health and science journalism

By Jordan Anderson

On October 22, the National Association of Science Writers held the virtual discussion Taking Care of Yourself: Mental Health and Science Journalism as a part of the ScienceWriters2020 conference. The session drew more than 200 participants and was led by a panel of four female journalists. Each panelist joined one another to share one common message: journalists need to remember that in midst of a global pandemic, civil protests, hurricanes in the east, wildfires in the west, and very heavy news reporting, it is important to take care of yourself.

Studies show that one of five adults live with mental illness in the United States. Luisa Ortiz Pérez, executive director of Vita-Activa a helpline for women, journalists, and public defenders, mentioned eight of ten adults report that the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is making their stress levels worse. Elana Newman, clinical psychologist and research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, added despite this, “journalists have traditionally been the last group to talk about self-care.”

“[Journalism is] high paced,” said April Reese, an independent environment and science journalist. “Feeling that you’re ultimately struggling with that is absolutely legitimate.” Reese added that communications and journalism assignments can be stressful. She once had to cover a story on someone who had been through deep trauma, and it deeply affected her own mental health.

When considering self-care, Newman mentioned it is important to understand that mental health, stress, or burnout don't equate to mental illness; and that sometimes moral injury—things that occur against our core values— is a spiritual problem more than a mental problem. All of these factors can still affect mental health and it is important to have support and a friend to lean on when trying to navigate these different situations.

Following the initial discussion, panelists engaged with participants in a question and answer session. For privacy and to provide a safe space, this part of the conversation was not recorded, and participants were not named.

One participant asked how to deal with accumulating stress, mentioning how difficult it can be to take breaks or a day off as a journalist since it only leads to more stress on the following days as work continues to pile up.

All panelists spoke to the importance of taking breaks. Pérez suggested dividing time into periods of four hours with scheduled moments of nothing in-between. “Sometimes people have to just turn off the light and just take a breather… A five-minute Facebook break? That’s not relaxing.” Joanne Griffith, managing editor of NPR California Newsroom Collaboration, noted the importance of finding a supportive work environment. For her as a managing editor, she made a hard pivot during the pandemic to “the news can wait, is everybody okay?”

Another participant asked for helpful advice when editors reach out. Reese mentioned open and early communication. She also said, “no job is worth sacrificing your mental health for,” and Griffith added “if your boss is not nice to you, they have shown you who they are, and exit as quickly as you can… Your career will not end.”

Lastly, the panelists provided links to information and services journalists and communicators can explore for understanding and managing mental health.

Resources:

Journalists Are Struggling with Mental Health, Financial Hardship, and Disinformation, According to a “Startling and Disturbing” Survey. NiemanLab.

My Sweet Dumb Brain— A newsletter about facing life’s ups and downs, all while being kind to yourself

Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis. American Psychological Association.

You Feel Like Shit: An interactive self care guide.

Covering Trauma, Surviving Trauma, and Gaining New Insight Into How to Handle It. Society of Environmental Journalists.

For Freelancers in Conflict Zones, Help is Out There. Society of Environmental Journalists.

Covering Disasters. Audio File.

Participants registered for ScienceWriters2020 can access the session recording in the Whova app for 6 months.

Jordan Anderson is a Master of Arts Candidate in Bioethics and Science Policy at Duke University, focusing on science communication. He is an intern at Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honors Society, which publishes the American Scientist magazine. Jordan spent his undergrad as a chemistry major, writing for ViaNolaVie, a New Orleans student magazine, where he has several publications. He has also contributed to publications at Duke University centered around STEM inclusion, an area he is passionate about. Follow him on Twitter @jordan_artsci or email him at jjander2018@gmail.com.

Nov. 6, 2020