Distressed media

Published July 17, 2020
The writer is a consultant psychiatrist.
The writer is a consultant psychiatrist.

TV ANCHORS must be trained to remain calm, objective and adept at navigating and defusing tense on-air situations. But in a recent evening talk show, one anchor reacted violently to his panellist. Viewers pointed out the undeniably political and gendered dimensions of his inflammatory outburst. But few saw the behaviour as pathological — irrational agitation is inevitably a signal of poor mental health.

Like other front-line responders,media personnel are also caught in intense conflict as they are endlessly monitoring, collating and reporting on the pandemic amid other challenges and absorbing suffering every day. Unsurprisingly, since the pandemic hit Pakistan, high rates of mental health problems are being reported among mediapersons.

We don’t talk about mediapersons’ mental health enough. Even before the pandemic, mediapersons in Pakistan faced high levels of daily distress, amplified by intimidation, job insecurity, non-payment of salaries, unsupportive newsrooms, etc. As a profession, journalism tends to view emotional vulnerability as a weakness, contributing to a lack of safe spaces for psychosocial support or for mediapersons to receive training to manage their stress.

The pandemic has heightened this baseline vulnerability. Firstly, the personal safety of mediapersons is at risk as the implementation of safety guidelines, both in newsrooms and in the field, remains inconsistent. In view of lack of personal protection and exposure to crowded spaces, over 100 Pakistani journalists have contracted the virus; at least six have died. The basic demands of self-care are often caught in the cross hairs of unrelenting professional obligations during the pandemic. For example, maintaining phsyical distance was against the ethos of good reporting. Thus, social distancing protocols are compromised when journalists find themselves reporting from volatile hospital scenes, press conferences or crowded markets. Due to this exposure, their families are also at risk, and many have had to isolate themselves to protect their loved ones.

Journalists’ mental health is hardly talked about.

Secondly, journalists are inundated with a tsunami of 24/7 coverage of the pandemic, often without respite. In a resource-scarce environment, the volume of information requiring fact checking and rapid updates has been a huge challenge. This is exacerbated when there are gaps in skills to effectively translate complicated medical science into public communication. The result is incessant engagement with the internet, smartphone and ticker news. This is in contrast to a fundamental tenet advised to protect mental well-being in the pandemic: avoid constant exposure to the news. For mediapersons, this state of hyper vigilance is a precursor for stress-related disorders.

Thirdly, journalists deal directly with public anxieties, the loss of grieving families and the disquiet of healthcare staff, often against a backdrop of political rumpus. They are consumed with endless reports of suffering and the defenselessness of emergency response. They come into the line of fire when the public sees them as a source of misinformation or fake news. Exhaustion, erratic sleep, burnout and stress take their toll. For many resorting to maladaptive coping strategies including alcohol and drug abuse, fighting with their inner circle, social withdrawal and unhealthy lifestyles are likely to be the norm. Cynicism, lack of empathy, irritability and procrastination are features of ill mental health.

At an individual level, the main responsibility of mediapersons should be to ensure personal well-being. Daily check-ins when it comes to self-care is vital: keeping a journal of emotions, thoughts and experiences; connecting with friends and family; regulating sleep and exercise; setting boundaries to limit work exposure; practising mindfulness and developing better coping strategies can help prevent and treat burnout.

Peer support is crucial because colleagues can share collective challenges and empathise with each other in what is otherwise a predatory, hostile situation. Mentors have a responsibility to create space for support and guidance, and to ensure that less experienced journalists are exposed to fewer risks.

At an organisational level, media houses have an ethical responsibility to provide PPE to journalists, and to demonstrate greater flexibility in allowing their staff to work from home — especially women, who face a double-burden in the realms of childcare, conveyance, etc. In this highly stressful time, with no end in sight, reallocating work to accommodate shifts, time-off and shared tasks can be helpful. Employers also need to demonstrate a greater commitment to balancing their business interest with the well-being of their staff. Strict policies against workplace harassment must be implemented. Finally, reducing stigma and raising mental health awareness is vital, as is facilitating access to mental health services when needed.

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist.

Twitter: @AsmaHumayun

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2020

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