Journalists and their mental health

Tips and Advice: Sian Williams

Tips and Advice: Sian Williams

Sian Williams, ITN mental health first aider and 5 News anchor has put together some tips and advice for those working in newsrooms on how to look after your own mental wellbeing.

Distress is normal and not a weakness. However upsetting the event is, most journalists will not go on to develop acute stress or PTSD after a traumatic incident and will recover quickly. However…

  • Lack of sleep can affect our judgement. Try not to look at disturbing imagery before bed – sleep cements memory. The blue spectrum light from mobiles and PCs primes the brain to stay ‘awake’ too. Read. Watch escapist TV. Anything that isn’t the thing you’ve been immersed in.
  • Go easy on ‘self medication’. Alcohol might help us get to sleep faster but recovery during that rest period will be markedly worse and can affect judgements the following day.
  • Try to get some exercise – even if it’s just a short walk. We ‘sweat out’ stress hormones like cortisol.
  • Reflect on feelings, rather than ruminate. The very act of naming an emotion; ‘I feel shaken/upset/fragile because..’ uses a different part of the brain than that used for the fear/stress/threat response.
  • Talk to others. Colleagues will often feel the same and it’s helpful to share thoughts.
  • If they’re upset, try not to ‘fix’ them, most times just listening and ‘watchful waiting’ is enough.
  • Remember it is not career threatening to admit you feel overwhelmed and need to take time out. I know many senior correspondents who’ve done it (as have I)

What to watch out for:

  • Recurring nightmares.
  • Feeling disorientated or ‘spacey’.
  • Difficulty engaging at home, feeling flat.
  • Not managing simple tasks – or being able to problem solve.
  • Being irritable, angry, impulsive, distracted – often.
  • Feelings of guilt, helplessness, shame – feeling bad that you were able to leave the scene or didn’t ‘help’.
  • Physical reactions – feeling shaky, elevated heart rate, sweating, panicky.

It’s normal to have occasionally disrupted sleep, to remember upsetting images and to
replay certain stories after covering a traumatic event. It’s also normal to feel more jumpy and anxious about another bad thing happening. But if this continues for more than three or four weeks, then it’s best to seek professional help. And if it feels particularly overwhelming, you may need to speak to someone a lot sooner.

Most journalists who recover well from something traumatic have learnt their own coping strategies. What is common among them though, is their acceptance of the difficult emotions, rather than the avoidance of them. Reflecting on them with others rather than feeling fearful and isolated. And realising that self-care means rest, easy activities and scheduling in some time with family or friends away from the news.


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