Mental health: why journalists don’t get help in the workplace
Reporters are finally telling empathetic stories about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, but newsroom culture keeps journalists’ own struggles in the dark.
By Megan Jones
In the early afternoon, fear crept in and drove Dave Seglins back to bed. Now he’s coming undone. He lies still, held by terror, unable to roll over, let alone get up and do something besides think, think, think. The outside world continues to move around him, but Seglins doesn’t notice. All that registers are the images and stories the CBC reporter absorbed during the week he covered the Russell Williams sentencing, during which the Trenton-based army colonel pleaded guilty to 88 charges, including sexual assault, forcible confinement, break-ins and first-degree murder. Seglins was in the courtroom all four days, taking in the catalogue of sadistic crimes and relaying them to the country.
There’d been no time to think then. It was wake up, get to the courthouse by 5 a.m., live hits at six, seven, eight o’clock, listen to the evidence and file regular updates online. Step out at noon for radio and TV hits, head back to the courtroom, listen, file online again. Radio hits at four and five o’clock; another TV hit at six. Race up to the nearby town of Tweed, Ontario, to interview victims’ families and gather material for the next morning. He’d finish by midnight, leaving just enough time to swallow some food and pound back two or three pints—to dull the nerves—before catching three-and-a-half hours of sleep.
But at home, Seglins has time to think. The gruesome evidence replays uncontrollably, a long tape of horrors, winding, winding—never stopping—like a trip on some horrific drug. First, the colonel, posing straight-faced in stolen lingerie; now, one of his victims, Jessica Lloyd, convulsing, pleading, “If I die, willyou make sure that my mom knows that I love her?” Williams masturbating in young girls’ beds.
Seglins has kids of his own.
He calls his wife. “You need to go for a walk,” she tells him. The cold October air pierces his panic, and the tape slows down. As his terror subsides, he realizes he needs help. Later that day, he calls the emergency helpline available through CBC’s employee assistance program (EAP) and speaks with a counsellor. Throughout that session, and a few more in the coming weeks, Seglins realizes what many journalists haven’t: you don’t need to report from a war zone to experience trauma or burnout. Sometimes, the right mix of sleep deprivation, intense deadline pressure and horrifying material is enough.
While employers are paying increasing attention to post-traumatic stress disorder among reporters in conflict zones, little is devoted to the mental health of domestic staff. As newsrooms shrink and the appetite for constant real-time updates grows, organizations expect journalists to do more with less, often on a variety of platforms. Alongside older newsroom realities—the competitive, deadline-driven atmosphere and the need to appear detached, brave and strong—these new expectations contribute to a culture that can foster poor mental health and inhibit open discussion of it.
News organizations and journalists are inadvertently creating a double standard: they are changing the way they report on mental health (for example, last August, CBC News and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma began developing a guide to mental health reporting, aimed at reducing stigma and improving coverage), but failing to address the issue among their own employees.
Mental illness in the newsroom takes a number of forms. Some journalists develop long-term conditions, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or addiction, which might have developed regardless of their work. They may seek treatment and continue successful careers. Other journalists burn out and become unable to handle daily pressures. This can be the cumulative result of failing to deal with day-to-day stress, or, in cases like Seglins’s, caused by specific traumatic experiences or exhausting conditions on the job.
Either way, journalists can experience stigma. Mental health may no longer be a scary taboo, but many people still consider it an awkward topic best avoided. While reporters are learning the language necessary to cover mental health adequately, they don’t always use it on themselves.
When Shelagh Rogers broke her ankle in 2000, she took a short leave from her job at CBC Radio. When she returned, smiling colleagues presented her with a card and a cake inscribed with “Welcome Back.” Then, in 2003, she took what she intended to be a short break from her post at Sounds like Canada after developing high blood pressure. Rogers had been dealing with depression for decades, and, deprived of the adrenaline of producing a daily program, she fell into one of the deepest episodes she’d ever experienced. Her leave extended to four months. When she returned, there was no card, no cake and barely any eye contact. “It was as though people felt I had some kind of contagious disease,” she says. “I felt like I was a ghost.” Her colleagues’ unwillingness to acknowledge the reasons for her leave made the transition back to work even harder.
Rogers briefly regretted disclosing her struggle with depression—a choice she’d been anxious about making. “You could always feel someone breathing at your back,” she says. “I was sitting on a great big lump of national-radio real estate, and I liked it. I wanted to make sure that I kept it.” Ultimately, her openness didn’t affect her career prospects, she says, and, awkwardness aside, her co-workers were supportive. Rogers stayed on the show for five more years, but began to find the schedule gruelling. In 2008, she left to pursue a freelance career, which offered more flexibility with her hours. Today, as the host and co-producer of CBC’s The Next Chapter, Rogers works to a weekly deadline, which gives her more control over what she does and when she does it. Although bad days are rare, Rogers’s schedule allows her to cut back on work and pick it up later. Her producers also have an enlightened approach to mental health, meaning she can discuss her depression openly.
Others aren’t so lucky. “I still can’t counsel somebody and say, ‘Yeah, you should disclose, absolutely.’ It’s individual circumstances,” Rogers says. “There are people who will say, ‘Oh well, she can’t handle that assignment. She might have a nervous breakdown.’ Those people absolutely are out there.” Indeed, some of her friends have had trouble with managers and editors after opening up. “It changed everything,” she says. “The way they related on a day-to-day basis, the kind of assignments they were given.”
Such stigma isn’t unique to journalists. Newsrooms operate in a society where mental illness is often misrepresented, misunderstood or ignored. One in three Canadians will live with a mental illness or a substance abuse problem at some point. But understanding that hasn’t automatically led to public acceptance. According to the Canadian Medical Association, nearly half ofthe country’s population believes people use mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour. These attitudes trickle into the workplace and can lead to employee silence. A 2012 Ipsos Reid survey found that more than 30 percent of Canadian employees felt that if they were to disclose their depression, their supervisors wouldn’t be understanding or supportive.
They may be right. Companies take a hands-off approach to mental health, and only one in three managers reported receiving training in how to intervene when employees show signs of depression. Even when they noticed the signs, only 55 percent of supervisors stepped in. Newsrooms are no different. Asked if the Toronto Star’s bosses receive training regarding mental health, editor-in-chief Michael Cooke responds: “No, we expect our managers to manage within the boundaries of common sense and common decency.” He believes mental health is better left discussed with non-editorial staff. “If there are mental health issues in this newsroom—and I guess there must be—then that’s really dealt with by the employee and the human resources department. That’s none of my business.”
Stigma is detrimental because job stress, if left unattended, can lead to mental illness. According to Statistics Canada, employees who consider most of their days to be “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful are over three times more likely to suffer a major depressive episode, compared with those who report low stress levels. Workplaces in many sectors offer counselling, or coverage for drugs or therapy through EAPs. But in organizations where workers feel uncomfortable disclosing their mental health issues, employees might be reluctant to seek help, and their illnesses are likely to get worse.
Sometimes this means losing a job. Paul Morse, president of the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild, says newsroom managers often don’t recognize mental health issues and attribute lack of productivity or absenteeism to laziness. As discipline, the bosses may attempt to have them suspended or fired. Unionized employees are likely to grieve the decision. Depending on the nature of the issue, some grievances go before the Ontario Labour Relations Board or a human rights tribunal for resolution. Some employers accept that they were wrong and team up with the union and the worker to establish accommodations. But for some employees, the shame and stress of being fired compounds the stigma they feel over their mental illness, and they leave.
Fear of losing a job, or of being perceived as weak and incapable of taking on big assignments, may prevent some journalists from seeking help, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t available. EAPs are safety nets for employees who use them, offering access to emergency counselling hotlines and to a limited number of counselling sessions with a therapist set up through work. In addition, drug and therapy coverage is available through benefit plans. While job stressors caused his breakdown, Seglins says CBC’s assistance program allowed him to start to recover within a few weeks.
But EAPs aren’t flawless. Many offer four to six therapy sessions per year, leaving some in need of costly additional care. Provincial healthcare plans cover psychiatrists’ fees, but waiting lists are long—sometimes months after referral. Seeing psychologists is usually quicker, as they don’t require referrals. But their fees are high—for example, the Ontario Psychological Association suggests a rate of $220 per hour—and aren’t covered by most provincial health plans. Meanwhile, corporate benefits coverage is limited. The Star, for example, offers up to $600 for therapy costs through its insurance provider; at Montreal’s The Gazette, beyond the standard four sessions offered through the EAP, employees can claim up to $300 per year. That’s a meagre, and possibly useless, one or two sessions with a psychologist.
Newsrooms still dedicate more attention to physical ailments than psychological ones. The Star has an in-house physiotherapy unit, and The Globe and Mail brings a chiropractor and a massage therapist in two days a week for drop-in appointments—but neither has in-house counsellors. It’s not for lack of trying, though. The Star has offered anonymous on-site counselling in the past, but hardly anyone participated, according to Brian Daly, human resources vice president at the paper. “People might prefer not to go through a company provider, just because of the stigma,” he says. That was certainly the case with Seglins. “I actually wanted it to be arm’s-length,” he says. “It’s a danger, given the stigma around mental health issues, to go and talk to your editor, because you don’t want to be perceived as weak or in crisis.”
The Star also has a back-to-work transition program for employees who take leave, including those who take time off to deal with mental health. Initially, some journalists may work reduced hours. They may also do a different job—such as copy editing—if they feel unprepared to return to reporting. CBC gives employees access to counsellors who know what journalists may face in the field. At the Gazette, if journalists are in crisis, the news outlet will sometimes authorize extra sessions through its EAP, based on individual circumstances.
In an ideal world, human resources departments would learn from each other. But they face the same financial pressures that editorial departments do. Tight budgets prevent organizations from expanding their programs.
Journalism will always be a stressful occupation, but burnout can be avoided through better communication between newsroom staff and managers. Scott Reinardy, a University of Kansas journalism professor, has been studying stress in American newsrooms for a decade. He recently found that 22 percent of those who work in TV exhibited signs of burnout.
Reinardy believes a newsroom’s most important commodity is its staff. But he says mental health is usually the last thing organizations consider when they are strained for time and money. Too often, the story comes first. Editors, facing their own pressures, seldom pay enough attention to the psychological well-being of their reporters.
Seglins believes this was the case when he covered the Williams sentencing. “They were giving lots of lip service to being understanding,” he says. “But I didn’t see them making a decision to say, ‘Look, you’re on your third 20-hour day. Maybe we need to bring in more staff.’” His editors did let him know about the EAP, and he admits that when they asked how he was feeling, he said he was fine. “If somebody puts up their hand and says, ‘I need out,’ I expect my newsroom would say, ‘No problem.’ But it’s so against the culture of the newsroom to say, ‘I can’t handle this.’”
Without training, managers may also be genuinely unaware of how to deal with burnout or illness. In the late 1990s, Rona Maynard, then editor-in-chief of Chatelaine, had openly dealt with her own depression. She thought she knew what mental illness looked like. But when one of her staffers fell into an extreme depression, she realized she was wrong.
It began when the colleague stopped smiling and then no longer bantered with others, spending more and more time burrowed in her office. One day, Maynard saw that she’d covered her door window with paper, shutting herself in completely. Not wanting to admit that her staffer had a problem, Maynard justified the barricade by telling herself the woman was just trying to concentrate.“I really didn’t want to see how bad it was,” she says.
Eventually, the staffer didn’t file a story. When the managing editor couldn’t get straight answers, Maynard went to the employee, and found her staring at a blank monitor. Defeated, she told Maynard she wasn’t able to work. Not only was she having difficulty writing; she couldn’t read anything.
She went on long-term disability, and Chatelaine kept her job open. But when the woman returned, Maynard didn’t know how to help her make the transition. “I could really have used a frank discussion about what success looks like when a person with a mental illness returns to work,” she says. The employee couldn’t adjust and, eventually, left the magazine. Maynard has often wondered what would have happened if she’d stepped in earlier and authoritatively helped her colleague find treatment. “I think there’s certainly a good chance it would have made a difference.”
Employees also need to look out for themselves. Even perceptive and sensitive managers can’t accommodate those who won’t accept, or admit to needing, help. Journalists must be self-aware enough to know their limits and brave enough to communicate with managers in the event that they reach them. “The self-care issue is absolutely fundamental,” says Jane Hawkes, co-founder of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. If you’re not aware of yourself, you’re going to get into trouble quickly.” Hawkes works with both domestic and foreign reporters, and she suggests peer support can connect journalists with others who understand what they are going through and can offer informed advice. As more people talk freely about their experiences, awareness will grow, and shame and stigma will erode.
But even Hawkes isn’t sure how possible this is, given the hard, fast and competitive nature of the job. “Can you even change a newsroom culture that much? I don’t know,” she says. “Is it just the nature of the beast?”
Still, some things do change, and newsrooms have come a long way in the last 20 years. Veteran reporters and editors give the impression that mental illness simply didn’t exist before the new millennium. No one can explain how newsrooms dealt with it, because it was so rarely discussed.
John Honderich, the current chair of Torstar’s board of directors and former publisher of the Star, points out that before the 1980s, the paper didn’t even have built-in psychological aid for employees. He and his colleagues introduced an early version of the current EAP after negotiations with union representatives.
Attitudes toward alcohol abuse and addiction have also improved. For decades, journalism and drinking went hand in hand for many. The Star’s Jim Coyle has been sober for nearly 20 years, but he lived for decades as a functioning alcoholic. In his early days at The Canadian Press, he routinely brought a 12-pack to work on weekend shifts. “I’d just sit there, half in the bag, drinking the beer as I did my Junior A hockey listings,” he says. “No big deal.”
Later, Coyle covered provincial politics; he remembers that alcohol was always available in the Queen’s Park press lounge. In the evenings, reporters and politicians would gather around a large table to talk and drink. By the end of the night, the table would be covered by a blanket of bottles.
In the late 1980s, Coyle’s alcohol use began to affect his work. When colleague Peter Gorrie had to pick up the slack, he became worried, and eventually reported it to management, who laughed off Gorrie’s concerns. “I get a call about an hour later from the editor, who was one of my drinking buddies,” Coyle says. “He goes, ‘That fucking Peter isn’t much of a team player, is he?’”
Coyle believes he is genetically predisposed to alcoholism but suspects that for some journalists, drinking was, and may still be, a form of self-medication, administered to cope with the stress of the job. And regardless of motivation, he says, the permissive newsroom culture allowed for abuse.
Today, journalists may still drink as a way to deal with stress, but managers are far more cognizant of substance abuse. Larger organizations like the Star now often pay all, or part of, the cost of rehabilitation. Sometimes, Daly says, a year will go by with no cases; other years, the Star sends three or four people to rehab.
Addressing mental health isn’t just an ethical issue—it’s a financial one. Nearly a quarter of Canadian workers are currently affected by mental health problems or illnesses, leading to absenteeism and turnover. Overall, mental health-related losses cost workplaces $20 billion annually. In the event that mental illness causes journalists to leave the newsroom, finding, hiring and training new staff takes time and costs money. And when experienced reporters leave, they take the knowledge of their communities or beats with them, which can lead to less critical and less informed coverage. If coverage suffers, news organizations may lose their audiences.
In November 2013, about three years after his breakdown, Seglins has a medical appointment scheduled for his four-year-old. He and his wife have waited for months to get their son a spot with a specialist. That morning, he tells his editors he’ll be leaving early. The conversation stresses him out. It’s not that they won’t let him go, it’s just that they aren’t happy. Not an hour before Seglins gets ready to leave, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford admits to smoking crack cocaine. No one was expecting this. The CBC newsroom melts down as reporters and editors jump to cover the admission, but Seglins makes the excruciating decision to leave anyway. He’s aware of the divorce-rate statistics, the parenting absenteeism statistics. Today, his son is more important. Even so, he can’t help the guilt that takes over. He was CBC’s lead reporter on the Ford saga and knows he’s let a lot of people down. To make amends, he comes to the newsroom at 5 a.m. the next day, and works a 15-hour shift.
by Megan Jones
Megan Jones was the Editor for the Spring 2014 issue of Ryerson Review of Journalism.