Staying Sane in 2020 was a breakout session that sought to teach journalists the importance of mental health at this year’s SPJ conference. Dr. Tammy McCoy-Arballo led a discussion on the impacts stress, burnout, compassion fatigue and exposure to trauma have on journalists.
After having a hit put out on her from a person who was on trial for attempted murder, she began to take her mental health seriously.
“I had to learn to take care of myself in a way that I never had,” McCoy-Arballo said.
During the session, McCoy-Arabllo reiterated that as journalists we tell the stories that involve pain, suffering, and distress.
“We’re exposed to it, but we’re not taught how to deal with it,” McCoy-Arballo said.
McCoy-Arabllo used a 2019 survey that assessed how journalists felt after covering Hurricane Harvey. The survey found that 90% of the journalists had some symptoms of PTSD, McCoy-Arabllo said. Two out of five of the journalists reported depression that met criteria for diagnosis, while 93% of journalists showed symptoms of clinical depression.
McCoy-Arabllo said this year has been especially stressful due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wavering economics, anxiety surrounding job security, the “fake news” world and fight for social justice.
“The impact is that people are reporting symptoms of burnout, depression, substance abuse, and PTSD ” McCoy-Arballo said.
McCoy-Arballo said the stress of maintaining a high level of production through these feelings creates an unhealthy environment for anxiety.
“You’re expected to just do it like it’s no big deal, like it’s the most natural thing in the world,” McCoy-Arabllo said.
As the session continued, McCoy-Arballo wanted the participants to remember the terms: burnout, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, secondary post traumatic stress and racial trauma. She said these are all symptoms that can lead to an erosion of our ideals.
“It’s a huge red flag when we stop caring about the principles that brought us into this work,” McCoy-Arabllo said.
McCoy-Arabllo also noted that these feelings can be taxing on journalists and can impact our physical and psychological system.
McCoy-Arballo cautioned attendees to address their stress in a healthy manner as opposed to drinking, using drugs, or eating unhealthy foods. She suggests using these indicators as moments to ask for help.
When it comes to the work environment, McCoy-Arballo said leaving the door open for honest communication is important.
“Set the table to make it ok for the people in your newsroom who might be too cool for school,” McCoy-Arballo said.
Matthew Hall, SPJ’s president-elect, said journalists work hard and it’s a good reminder that we need to recognize when we’re not doing well and to take steps to address that.
“If you learn nothing else from our time today, make yourself a priority,” McCoy-Arballo said.