PTSD in the Newsroom: Acknowledgment, Prevention and Hope

October 9, 2019 01:30

In honor of World Mental Health Day, October 10, RTDNA is bringing awareness to mental health in newsrooms and launching a new mental health resource guide.
After nine years supporting the news industry, I have observed two remarkable traits in those who work in newsgathering. First, they have an incredible ability to solve critical problems on a moment’s notice. “You need 500 AA batteries, an armored car, two pizzas and a mannequin? Give me 10 minutes.” Second, they have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize emotional responses, carrying out their assignments with the strictest sense of duty and deadline.

When I stepped back and looked at the newsroom environment through the lens of a health and safety specialist, I recognized that while the potential day-to-day exposures to chemical and physical hazards were relatively limited, the mental and emotional hazards could be very high. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been recognized since the 1980’s and is now diagnosed in almost all population groups. In America, PTSD affects about 8 million adults per year but numbers are likely higher when we consider those who go undiagnosed.

According to the National Institute of Health, PTSD can develop not only as a result of surviving traumatic events, but also just by witnessing them. In addition, watching traumatic news has been linked to an increase in stress symptoms in viewers, according to the National Center on PTSD.

Although there are various studies about how news can affect the common viewer, there is little data available about how covering, editing, managing and producing coverage of such events can affect non-field news employees. If just seeing or witnessing trauma can lead to PTSD, then those who work in these news roles may be considered exposed to a PTSD risk similar to that of a first responder. When one considers the hundreds of hours of video and thousands of emails processed (primarily involving stories of violence, loss, fear or instability) on any given week, the degree of risk to witnessing trauma becomes clearer. 

As we move towards a more positive understanding of mental health, we need to start taking more proactive measures to protect and respond to those in the news business who witness trauma on a consistent basis.

Over the last two decades, companies have started to make mental and behavioral health support available through employee assistance programs (EAPs). Unfortunately, the EAP support system can fall short in PTSD prevention as it relies on employees to initiate an interaction.

Employees may not even be aware that any adverse effects are related to covering traumatic events. In addition, many employees voice concern about contacting HR to discuss mental or behavior health, as they believe it could threaten their job security. Even though there are laws and protections in place for employees to prevent this, clearly the cultural stigma surrounding mental health may prevent newsgatherers from seeking assistance in dealing with the trauma attendant to their jobs.

There is also an ever-increasing population of freelancers, daily hires, and contract workers that do not have access to EAP benefits and could be at an even higher risk for PTSD without such support.

As the news-cycle keeps churning and the next assignment barrels in on the heels of the last, the mental health needs of newsgatherers easily can be sidelined. How can those of us charged with worker health and safety make a difference? This was a question I found myself asking during the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. During this coverage we knew communicating the EAP option was a clear choice, but how could we simultaneously fight stigma and provide better support to those who may not even know they need it?

The health & safety, HR, crisis management and news management functions collaborated to make skilled counselors available on site to anyone during the coverage. We set up additional 24-hour hotlines for anyone to talk with a counselor. We also created a PTSD Awareness module in our organization’s health & safety manual – elevating recognition, prevention and training on the silent hazard.

The most impactful action, however, was personal communication from senior news managers to employees about the mental health support available. These messages were positive and encouraging and were repeated throughout editorial and production meetings and on team calls. Having news leaders support and encourage mental health awareness was a game-changer. We now had employees attending counseling and even expressing their needs for recovery time and other stress-relieving wellness options. It felt as if we broke through the stoicism that was a long-standing part of our operating culture and reached the human beings beneath. We did not eradicate the effects of trauma in the news environment (that may never be possible), but we did provide a lighted path to mental health support and awareness.

Day in and day out, newsgatherers tell stories of violence, loss, fear and instability.  Those of us who play a supporting role in the news industry have a duty to create a safe haven for mental health if we are serious about PTSD mitigation and prevention. Everyone from operations to HR should embrace the mental health conversation, enhance employee access to mental health support and demonstrate a positive mental health culture through communication. At the end of the day, it is the fundamental acknowledgment of our humanity that is at the very foundation of productivity, teamwork and wellness.

Justine Parker, CIH, CSP, CHMM, CPH, is a Managing Health Scientist with Cardno ChemRisk. She has more than 15 years of experience in occupational health including as health and safety advisor to ABC News from 2007-2016.