SPEECH: Mind The Gap: Media’s Role in Covering Mental Health and Creating a Culture of Mental Hygiene
By Qaanitah Hunter MMX, Cape Town. September 2019
Good morning everyone.
I recently I won the Nat Nakasa award for brave and courageous journalism. I promise, this is not a shameless plug but winning this award was kind of a big deal for me- a career goal really. Obviously, when you win an award as prestigious as this one, you naturally start reflecting on the person the award is named after. Nat Nakasa was an anti-apartheid hero. He was a talented writer, a profound activist and a natural scholar. Nat Nakasa also suffered from severe depression that led him to take his own life at 28 years old. History tells us that on 14 July 1965 Nakasa met his death by jumping from a window of a high-rise building in the US.
So it puzzled me that when we speak about Nat Nakasa and commemorate his life and writings, mental health never comes up. Depression claimed Nat Nakasa’s life. And if anything, the biggest commemoration to his life would be to begin a conversation about mental hygiene in the media and in newsrooms.
There’s a story I repeat often of how I came to Johannesburg barely 18 years old and with just a matric, desperate to become a journalist. I will spare you the self-indulgent details but the fact remained that I was naive and ambitious. I wanted to change the world. Yeah, I said I was naïve. And so the moment I had a platform, I wrote a personal account of my family’s experience with mental illness.
How the burden of having a parent diagnosed with Schizophrenia was so heavy and how I hoped it would change. I thought if I speak about my lived experience of being a child suffering not from the fact that my dad had mental illness but suffering from the consequences of ignorance around mental health. The denial, the keeping of a ‘dirty secret’ that I had a ‘mad’ father and, as a result, the inaction and not seeking help caused more trauma.
So I thought if I write a 500-word article for EyeWitness News, it would end the stigma of mental health and we can start having more open conversations about it. I was 19 and naïve. I shared the link, proud that I was ‘actually making a difference’. But very quickly a friend texted me: “How does your family feel now that you telling the world your dad’s crazy?” she asked. And I thought about it for a second and I said: how is talking about my lived experience of Schizophrenia different from Lucy who talks about her dad’s battle with Cancer. Lucy is not her real name but you get my point?!
Even when we are talking about the destigmatization of mental health, there is a stigma attached.
Fast forward seven years from then and I am standing in the foyer of parliament having a conversation with a member of parliament over some commotion that occurred in a committee hearing the day before. “But you know Q,” he said to me, “We must just ignore X MP because who knows… maybe she didn’t take her meds yesterday”. This unnamed MP had come out publicly to talk about her experience with depression and anxiety in an effort to create mental health awareness. She spoke about her journey being on anti-depression medication and seeing a therapist regularly.
Obviously, her intention was to empower others who feel ashamed or stifled by their depression and anxiety, to reiterate the point that you are not alone. But this vulnerable disclosure was weaponised by her political opponents across the floor. When she was robustly raising questions about misspending at a state-owned entity, her rivals were whispering: “maybe she didn’t take her meds”. I was livid. A similar thing happened to me. One Sunday, after I had written some expose or the other, someone tweeted me: “You are schizophrenic like your father”. It was most likely a bot. And I get far worse harassment daily. But somehow that stang.
And slowly, the more stories I wrote, the severity of the attacks intensified. The harder and harder it was to get out of bed. It was like the building fell down all at once. Heck, the foundation was uprooted. The anxiety from the half a dozen times I was mugged or robbed came back to revisit me; The time the man threatened to rape me because I deserved it and the time a man managed to open my hotel door in Nelspruit while I was asleep and the time I woke up with a burglar laying on top of me. Every negative response to a story felt like a piece of my soul was being chipped away.
And it was only when a loved one saw the signs of depression and prompted me to trauma counselling did I realise what I was actually going through. When I got out on the other side I realised how dull and dim that time was. And yet, throughout that period I was producing at work, writing front-page stories and breaking news. But that’s the thing about depression and anxiety- any mental illness really.
It doesn’t discriminate. It's not discerning. You can endure it at the height of your career, at the onset of a fantastic relationship or just after an incredible promotion. So it's up to us then to do two things: to create enough awareness around mental health and to find ways to promote mental hygiene.
A few months ago, I tweeted about how journalists don’t talk about the toll our jobs have on our mental health and suddenly I was flooded with messages from people, colleagues in media, who were talking about their experiences. And suddenly, glossy TV reporters were telling me how after years of struggle they had finally gotten help. Mental illness or mental ill-health is not a new phenomenon but in journalism, you either became a functioning alcoholic or you crashed and burnt and found yourself another career- if you were lucky.
The thing is, there’s a level of bravado that comes with journalism that can become insidious. Delusions of invincibility even. I had an addiction to danger. Many of us do. And to be honest, the time someone tried to set your car alight is a damn good dinner party story. But that comes with a price. The price is uncontrollable anxiety every time a group gathers around my car- or even sometimes just driving in the CBD. Sometimes I tell myself that South Africa is not a warzone. PTSD from reporting is what you get from being a war correspondent.
But I recently reconsidered that line of thinking. There’s trauma in every beat single beat. Take the deployment of the army here on the Cape flats, journalists go in without any protection as they forced to tell the story of a community where when 50 people die in one weekend it was a ‘good one’. Now of course, what deters us from identifying our own feelings is empathy for the mother who lost her child or the lady that gets killed by a stray bullet. But transference causes trauma that then is bottled up under the guise of doing our work. We cover rape cases, and we read brutal accounts of crimes. And that’s not even the ‘hardcore journalism’.
We face harassment daily. And with social media, that harassment reaches you wherever you are. The weaponisation of social media is staggering and it’s constantly used to threaten, harass and ultimately censor journalists. But we are not in a war zone, we tell ourselves. We are not the story. This is not about us. And yes that’s true. But being brave, reporting ethically and not making yourself the centre of the story can still lead to you having PTSD or having your work affect your mental health. It’s not mutually exclusive.
Reporting on the death of Uyinene Mrwetyana and thereafter telling your editor that you feel triggered and need a day does not diminish you or your work. It shouldn’t. But to seek help, we have to understand the nuances of mental illness and mental health. I know I did. I had to be schooled like a child by my therapist on how and why my work has led to debilitating anxiety. It’s a combination of transference, harassment, newsroom culture and burnout that led me to that chair.And yet, I was still in denial. I was taught to ‘suck it up’. We all were.
“I am not the story I should never be the story. I can’t be the story.”
I repeated the words to myself every time I was confronted by harassment and trauma. Yet still, it affected me.
So shall we all just go and see therapists? Well, yes. Because seeing a therapist is cheaper than alcoholism? (Joke) We have to sincerely internalize the concept that our minds can be affected by ill-health the same way our bodies do if it is not looked after. I think what we as journalists have to really appreciate is that preserving my mental health doesn’t make me weak, it makes me better at my job.
Natalee Steely, a US-based academic, researched The Psychological Toll of Covering Everyday Trauma and found that as the frequency and intensity of journalists’ trauma coverage increased, so did the severity of their PTSD symptoms. Seely suggested these findings indicate the importance of self-care, healthy coping strategies and newsroom-based strategies such as offering training and professional development on crisis reporting and encouraging reporters to access mental health resources to promote the well-being of journalists.
I have worked in a good few newsrooms and I have come to learn that the mental health of a journalist at the bottom of the proverbial food chain is the least of management’s concern. But somehow we have to make it their concern. The only way there will be real impactful change is if there is buy-in from editors and the understanding from media owners. Both have to understand that changing the newsroom culture in a way that promotes mental health and supports mental illness will foster efficiency and avoid burnout. Actually debriefing journalists after covering trauma and supporting them with therapy if necessary will positively assist in their work than the unspoken ‘suck it up’.
So what are people doing elsewhere? The Committee to Protect Journalists and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma are publishing guides and training reporters. And Thompson Reuters has hired a journalist mental health and wellbeing advocate to help editors and reporters manage the need for mental health care.
So what can we do here in South Africa? - We are at step one, to begin having a conversation around mental health to destigmatise it, to acknowledge the problem and to foster awareness around it.
Conversations like today are absolutely vital. But we all need to go back to newsrooms and talk about our experiences in a way that destigmatizes mental illness and make conversations around mental health normal.
- We need to empower journalists to not wait until its too late. Some of us may need self-care, others may need therapy and a lot may need medication. We have to realise that help is available if they are suffering from a decline in mental health.
For this, I have planned to team up with medical professionals, possibly psychologists, and psychiatrists, to conduct workshops inside of newsrooms where they can empower journalists with information about mental health. We need a medical professional to talk about symptoms of various mental illnesses and how and when help should be acquired.
-We have to engage editors in finding ways to engender newsroom hygiene.
For this, I am planning to engage with the South African National Editors Forum to collectively come up with ways to deal with this challenge.
Mental health sometimes feels like a privilege problem in this world we live in where we are dealing with unprecedented levels of femicide and violence and unemployment. But we should never diminish efforts to create awareness around it and to take steps to create a culture of mental hygiene. I don’t have the solutions standing here today. But I know that talking about it is the first and right step. I hope you can share your thoughts and ideas with me as we work together to empower the next generation of news. I thank you.