The issue of mental well-being of journalists is one that needs to be put on the table for urgent discussion as well as seeking viable avenues to achieve it.
This topic provided for a rich debate at the Kenya Editors Guild Convention which was held in Kisumu recently. Veteran journalist Tom Osanjo made a moving presentation drawing from his own personal journey with depression which spiraled into addiction.
The presentation gave way to an honest debate among editors on the need to make mental health a priority for media practitoners. It was a good idea that this topic made its way to the programme because as it turns out, nearly everyone present had a story of either them, their relatives or a journalist working under them having a brush with mental health problems.
By the nature of their work, journalists are often in the frontline of dangerous situations in their quest to bring the news to audiences. Grisly accidents of all sorts. Macabre deaths. Devastating natural and man-made disasters. Visiting morgues to ascertain the number of those killed or at times attending a post-mortem. Our brave men and women of the Fourth Estate stoically bear all these.
Despite these conditions, it is alarming that not many newsrooms have in place strong measures to check the mental health of their journalists. The result is that some under distress resort to self medication which in many cases entails substance abuse, to the detriment of both the staffer and his/her employer.
The editors cited cases where reporters could not file a story after witnessing harrowing incidents. There was the story of a photojournalist who broke down and cried after witnessing an accident, and another one who escaped death in Mathare slums, an incident that later affected him mentally.
With the current coronavirus pandemic, the need for quality mental health for journalists takes a more urgent turn.
In its December 2, 2020 publication, the International Centre for Journalists says that 500 journalists across the globe had lost their lives to the virus while hundreds others are infected.
“Back in May, when the Covid-19 pandemic was gaining strength and spreading worldwide, we took a look at the high toll on journalists in the crisis. Like health professionals, caregivers, and other essential workers, journalists face heightened risks as they pursue stories on the pandemic.
The numbers are rather grim: As of November 15, the toll had risen to at least 462 journalists lost to Covid-19 from 56 countries — a more than seven-fold increase,” the report says.
Although we do not have figures for local journalists, it is true that journalists are in the frontline covering Covid-19 stories. Even if they are not infected, the mental toll on them as they talk to the infected, relatives of the dead and other surrounding stories will definitely impact them.
It is for this reason that we need urgent measures to help the media practitioners. Although hard pressed financially, I believe our media houses can spare some money towards the mental wellbeing of their employees.
Alternatively, time is ripe for the many NGOs operating in the country to come up with tailor-made solutions for scribes, especially those covering riskier stories.
It was edifying that participants at the Kisumu event agreed that our local journalism training institutions introduce an aspect of mental health training in their curricula. My humble appeal is for those in charge of such trainings to move with haste and start such a programme.