Journalists and mental health -Express Tribune

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In Pakistan, there are many people who are critical of the work done by journalists but few who truly understand the very difficult circumstances that people of this profession work in. While it is easy to point out when journalists make mistakes, more difficult is to appreciate the fact that people of this profession risk life and limb to search for the truth and present the facts.

This work comes at cost. Journalists risk not only their physical wellbeing but also their mental health in the discharge of their duties. This is something that needs to be recognised and addressed by newsrooms as well as media houses. Last month, the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA launched the first of its kind report on the work done over the past three years by its Wellbeing Centre.

This Centre, supported by the DW Academy, has provided free counselling to over 100 journalists in 600 plus hours since 2018. Ably managed by my colleague Quratulain Ali, the initiative has not only been there to counsel those with mental health challenges, it has also played a role to create awareness amongst journalists about this silent killer.

The CEJ report gives an insight to the mental challenges faced by journalists in Pakistan. The Wellbeing Centre’s lead clinical psychologist Dr Asha Bedar put together the findings from the clinic with the help of SAMAA Digital head, Mahim Maher, who worked as a consultant to the project. At the launch of the report, Dr Bedar said that the purpose of the publication was to present a snapshot of the psychological issues journalists face, the impact it has on their work and what the signs of stress and distress are amongst them. More importantly, she asked whether newsroom managers were understanding those signs and what they were doing to address them. Much of the information for this study came from the face to face and online counselling. Needless to say confidentiality was a key factor. The study also took input from focus group discussions, semi-structured interviews, workshop surveys and clinic data.

Let us start by stating the obvious. It is a jungle out there. The pressure on journalists is intense. There is a race to do “real journalism”. The ratings system and breaking news syndrome has taken its toll not just on the news but on newspersons. Journalists in Pakistan unnecessarily put themselves at risk to get the news “as it happens” despite the fact they have neither the training nor the coverage needed to take such risks. Journalists are not just affected by their work conditions. They are also affected by what they report on. Time and again we have seen journalists reporting on violence, terrorism and other challenging subjects. Little do they realise how this affects them in person. They just want to report and move on. It is not as simple as that.

There are other challenges too. Apart from personal safety, there is the constant challenge of digital safety that our media persons face. But there is more. With the industry in transition there is also the fear of losing jobs with many journalists so set in their professional roles that changing into something new also causes anxiety. Both anxiety and depression continue to feature prominently in the work life of journalists in Pakistan. In my talk with Dr Bedar what came out was that most journalists ignore the warning signs till it is almost too late. That is scary.

Women journalists are more at risk. They face harassment on the field, in the newsroom, and in digital space. There are stories of discrimination. Of lower pay packages. Much more. This affects them but they have nowhere to turn to.

In all this, the hope is that this study (which is available online) will help identify the problems newspersons face and may start a conversation on what needs to be done. There has to be more awareness on mental health. Journalists cannot always be expected to perform without any safety net. It is hoped that this kind of research will help the media industry, its workers, owners and press clubs improve the mental wellbeing of newsrooms and staff and take its recommendations to heart. It could be a beginning.