Newsroom depression: One news director's story

July 20, 2017 01:30

By Steve Beverly, RTDNA Contributor

Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult. Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential.
We know all too sadly the personal stories of many national figures in news and sports media who have been through the lowest of the low challenges in their lives.
This list is only partial of those, both living and dead, who have battled depression: Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Marschall, Lauren Rowe, Jim Jensen, Roy Hobbs, John Head and meteorologist Ken Barlow.
Add me to that list. Depression has been as real for me as eating a meal or taking a walk. Related stresses from television news, as well as my own personality makeup, were significant contributing factors.
I, a former reporter-anchor-producer and news director, have battled depression for 26 years. My initial diagnosis came when I was still an active news director in 1991. 
Since then, I have had two subsequent serious bouts with depression that had at least a relationship to supervising a daily student-produced cable television newscast as a broadcast journalism professor.
I served as a news director and assistant news director in three Southeastern cities in the 1980’s. After a few years out to work on a graduate degree, I returned as a news director in the small market of Jackson, Tennessee, in 1990.
A recurring cliché today is “changing the culture.” Frankly, we had to establish a culture at my new station. No news director or general manager had been employed for more than six months.
I won’t bore you with the litany of problems that had to be navigated. If I told you we had no two-way radios to direct crews in the field and no working video edit station on my first day on the job, you would quickly get the point.
In the first 13 months on the job, the hills to climb became mountains. Leading a staff with three fewer people than I had been assured were on the payroll, I made the mistake of attempting to do the jobs of two and sometimes three people. The only problem with that strategy: I was not and never will be Superman.
As the months elapsed, I knew I was not myself. I was chronically fatigued and on the verge of a total collapse. I fooled myself into thinking things would improve, but I had no idea how to make that happen. No additional staffing was on the horizon. 
Likewise, I felt enormous guilt about moving to Jackson. Extreme guilt coupled with exhaustion are two of the prime ingredients of depression.
On a Monday evening in June 1991, I opened the front door of my house, dropped to my knees and had what was once referred to as a nervous breakdown. Today, the customary term is an emotional collapse.
I erupted into uncontrollable tears. The harder I tried to stop, the worse the crying spell became. For 90 minutes that seemed like nine hours, I continued to cry. 
After making several phone calls to determine how best to help, my wife convinced me to get in the shower and stay there until I could calm down, if that were possible.
For the next 42 days, television news was not a part of my life. I began regular visits with a counselor who immediately told me if I expected to bounce back in a few days, I was sorely mistaken. For a Type A personality accustomed to solving problems quickly, those words were the equivalent of a prison sentence. Yet, he was right. Depression is not a take two tablets and call me in the morning ailment. Recovery requires patience---an ingredient in small supply in most journalists.
In my blog, The Old TV News Coach, I detail my road back----which included staying out of the newsroom for six weeks, becoming regulated on antidepressant medication and learning to accept I am a human being and not a miracle worker.
So why tell my story today? Journalists are in one of the most stress-driven professions. They are multi-deadline driven every day. They see death, dying and violence on a perpetual basis. They are on call 24/7 to go to the next emergency. If they are married, they juggle family life with the demands of their jobs—akin to rowing a boat in nine-foot tidal waves. They are asked to cover more hours a day of news than ever with precious few staff additions to help.
News directors preach mental toughness to their staffs often as much as Nick Saban does to the Alabama Crimson Tide. Many deal with those pressures quite well. Others struggle with them but because they work in an industry that demands for its personnel to be “up” every day, they press on. 
Today’s percentages on mental illness suggest that in newsrooms, with high-stress cultures, one or more may be struggling with depression but will refuse to admit its warning signs. Why? In a public profession such as television news, the idea of admitting to depression is a suggestion of weakness. Some news managers contribute to that stigma.
Sadly, a percentage of journalists have refused to seek help and have slid down a dark path, occasionally even to suicide.
Depression is not one size fits all. I reach out to any journalists who have been there or are at that point right now. My life in television news sank into a dark direction. I am also proof that you do have hope. You can make it back. To do that, you have to admit you need help, seek help and be patient with your recovery. 
News directors, this is a cautionary tale for you. Your staff members are not the only ones vulnerable to mental illness.  You are at the helm of that demanding ship.  If you are not careful, it could be you.

Editor's note: Watch this space next week. We'll look at some warning signs that could pop up in your newsroom, and some suggestions about how news managers can work proactively to help.

Steve Beverly is Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and News Director of Jackson 24-7.