Catering to Journalists’ Mental Health

On the 23rd of March 2019, the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) gathered a small group of journalists for a mental wellness session at The Olive Prime Psychology Services Centre (TOPS), in Abuja.

In recognition of the peculiarity of a journalist’s job and the effects it can have on their mental health, PTCIJ partnered with TOPS, a psychiatric health facility based in Abuja, to provide psychological support and counselling for journalists in the area.

This initiative follows advocacy for the improved welfare of journalists in Nigeria, which began with the 2017 ‘No News Is Bad News’ program, organised by Free Press Unlimited (FPU) in collaboration with PTCIJ.

This led to the Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF), a collaboration of investigative newsrooms and Civil Society Organisations working on Whistleblower Protection and Press Freedom in Nigeria.

This initiative commenced in October 2018 as part of the Journalists’ Welfare Programme for the CWPPF. This journey gained momentum in the past year with the campaign against poor journalists’ welfare, stemming from the journalists’ welfare campaign, which resulted in the signing of an MoU between PTCIJ and TOPS to cater for the mental health of journalists.

The maiden group therapy session for 2019 focused on anger management and coping skills when confronted with stressors that typify the career of many journalists. The aim of the session was to promote better mental health and mindfulness among journalists. The nature of the work environment for journalists, where they must break the news, stay ahead of the curve and retain readership, can foster anxiety and lead to an array of psychological challenges.

Also, the advent of online media was poorly received by many journalists in the country, as some of them crumbled under the pressure of trying to keep up with digital media, keep up with information flow, as well as keep their organisations afloat.

Furthermore, the constant exposure to trauma and disturbing content (photos and videos) encountered while covering violence, tragedies, natural disasters, crimes and murder can put journalists at a higher risk of developing mental issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Additionally, the worsening revenue crisis in the print media, along with the hostile environment exemplified by increased attacks on journalists, begets a mental health crisis. For journalists, this can be hard to admit as this is most times worsened by “dwindling sales, seemingly hostile new technology, poor public perception, miserable remuneration, low self-esteem, opinion-rigging and the commodification of news dissemination,” Tatalo Alamu, concludes.

The current distressing work environment is now seen as the norm by both journalists and employers who send out reporters into the field without providing adequate support or coping mechanisms for when they return. Despite several studies documenting the high rates of psychological problems journalists suffer, this persists. Journalists who regularly witness scenarios that involve death and human suffering have been found to be more prone to long-term emotional distress. This, combined with poor welfare on the job, culminates in physical and mental challenges.

In an ongoing survey by PTCIJ on workplace-related stress in Journalism, mid-survey results have reported an almost 70% encounter with traumatic events, ranging from threatening calls to police brutality and armed harassment. The effects of this on mental health is noted as 62% of respondents reported experiencing work-related mental health issues. In the last year, the case of the Premium Times reporter Samuel Ogundipe comes to mind. This year, the PTCIJ’s press attack tracker has reported more than 10 attacks against members of the press in the first quarter alone.

The most recent session focused on anger management from issues around work and other activities that have the potential of affecting well-being and performance on the job. In the session, participants were encouraged to use a coping mechanism that can be used in the workplace to deal with psychological distress. Taught skills include mindfulness and focused attention training on tasks and events at hand, and short practices of meditation.

Some other strategies addressed in this session included breathing exercises, focusing on abstract issues such as counting to ten and utilizing your senses by listening to music. Participants also engaged in an exhilarating activity of art painting therapy.

In the post-session assessment, 100% of participants responded to the meeting as being useful, as there was also 100% agreement that sessions like this help reduce stress, provide coping skills, direct need to helpful facilities, and should be encouraged and expanded. The survey on Workplace-related Stress is still ongoing and journalists can participate here.