By Steve Beverly, RTDNA Contributor
Ken Barlow is a meteorologist in Minneapolis-St. Paul on KSTP. I have never met him. Yet, he is a hero to me.
Five years ago, he went public with his battle with bipolar disorder. He was emceeing an event to combat the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses.
He told reporter Amy Carlson Gustafson: “I’m not going to be ashamed. Two million people have (bipolar disorder) in the country, and millions of others deal with depression and other forms of mental illness. I’m not alone.”
As a former practicing news director and journalist and now 25 years into a career as a journalism educator, I have experienced three bouts with clinical depression.
Dr. Joanne Stephenson, psychology professor at Union University, says the workload and demands of journalists heighten the vulnerability to emotional illness.
“When you’re playing ‘Beat the Clock’ multiple times a day, regularly exposed to the darker side of life with murders and other crimes, and in a high-stress culture, you are definitely a candidate for depression,” Dr. Stephenson says.
News directors, you have a stressful enough job to deliver ratings, hire the right people and do the best you can to manage up every day. Pay attention. Here is a checklist of some of journalists’ vulnerabilities to emotional illnesses:
Constant Exposure to Death and Destruction
Reporters on a regular crime beat face scene after scene of bad things happening to good and bad people. At times, this can be gruesome. Repeated exposure to the ugly side of life cannot help but take an emotional toll on any reporter.
Because of the deadline pressures and—at times—ego battles over story assignments, story placement, or personalities, those conflicts can erupt into stress-inducing disputes that are toll-takers.
Erratic Sleep Patterns
This is one of these intangibles that goes with the territory. Yet, sleep deprivation is a catalyst for depression. For many news anchors and news personnel who work traditional 10 or 11 o’clock broadcasts, a challenge is to fall asleep before midnight or 1 a.m. The same is true for those on the overnight/early morning shifts. That often means unnatural, erratic sleep hours that are inconsistent.
Inconsiderate or Abusive Bosses
This is not to besmirch many good news directors who are fair and considerate with their staffs. However, take a poll and you will find a significant cause of turnover on news staffs is the cantankerous boss who appears to have a doctoral degree from the University of Unpleasantness. If one has such a boss, the wear and tear on your emotions can mount.
Relationship or Marriage Stresses
A special person is necessary to be a journalist’s spouse. Not only is the news staffer on call 24/7, the requests for on-air people to emcee events or participate in charity activities mount—all in the name of community service and promoting the station’s brand. When too many of those demands pile up, spouses or significant others can feel alone or abandoned. One’s emotional health can be in serious jeopardy.
Alcohol or Drugs
We have sadly seen a string of on-air journalists recently arrested on DUI charges. In addition to career jeopardy and personal embarrassment, habitual drug or alcohol abuse can lead to self-induced depression.
Professional Danger and Risks
The murder on live television of Alison Parker and Adam Ward of WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia, was a wakeup call for the entire profession. Yet, I am not certain that we still don’t have some corporate managements operating with the idea “that can’t happen here.” Every journalist today who goes on a live shot has to be far more aware of his or her surroundings. With some, that can lead to mild anxiety. The relationship between anxiety and depression is closer than that of third cousins.
So what do I suggest are additional resources the industry should consider to help deal with potential emotional struggles that can lead to depression or related illnesses? Consider these:
Keeping a certified psychologist on retainer
When a catastrophic event such as a weather disaster or mass violence breaks out, having an agreement where a counselor or a college psychology faculty member comes to the station to help the staff debrief and decompress is a huge help. Psychologists are trained to do what news directors cannot in crisis situations.
Saturday seminars with a psychologist
Once and possibly twice a year, schedule a two-hour session for the staff with a psychologist for a session of group therapy. A newsroom will likely function better mentally and emotionally with an opportunity to open up about tough days on the job with a counselor. The staff will likely have a better road map to cope with day-to-day challenges.
Requiring managers, including news directors, to have training for mental health issues
If research is true that 20 percent of journalists suffer from depression, the likelihood is that at least a few of your staff members will experience it or some form of post-traumatic stress disorder at some point. Sensitivity was once considered a sign of weakness in the rough-and-tumble world of television news. In today’s culture, insensitivity or a callous attitude toward depression is a black mark on anyone in management in any profession.
More than 30 years ago, I was on a plane with a fellow news director. Reacting to a seminar we both attended at an RTDNA convention, the news manager told me: “There’s no place in my newsroom for anyone with depression or mental illness.” With the growing percentages of journalists experiencing stress disorders, I wonder what he would say today.
Keep your eyes open for warning signs of depression in your news staff or yourself. If they surface, intervene and create a climate where shame or stigma are out the window. I will visit any newsroom in America to tell my personal story and leave this calling card: You can’t get well if you don’t get help.
Steve Beverly is Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and News Director of Jackson 24-7.