How to Protect Your Mental Health During Times of Crisis

Editor’s Note: This article should not be used in place of medical advice from a health professional. If you are experiencing depression or other mental health problems, please contact a qualified health professional.

May is Mental Health Month, and nothing is more important for reporters working around the clock than having the resources to stay healthy, both physically and emotionally.

It’s long been known that a journalist’s job can have a massive impact on his or her mental and emotional well-being. Acting as a conduit for stories of tragedy and trauma is no easy feat, and numerous studies have found that journalists – whether covering everyday events or massive tragedies – may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress. But the psychological toll of their work doesn’t just affect their mental health; it can affect their physical well-being, too. A systematic review published in European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology in 2015 found that journalists experienced bone and muscle pain related to their line of work and the stress they experience because of their work.

In today’s journalism environment and amid a global health pandemic, stress comes not only from reporting on the tragic stories and from working long hours, but from the economic uncertainties and extreme physical risks reporters now face because of the novel coronavirus.

We’ve rounded up some essential tips and resources that may help journalists to get through these trying times.

First up, a few basic tips to remember as you work through the coming weeks:

  1. Stay connected. As many of us has learned during the past few months, it’s incredibly difficult to be socially distant. That’s because humans are social creatures. Observational studies have suggested a correlation between our physical health and our relationships with family, friends and community, as well as between social connectedness and mental health. While it’s understandable that staying connected can feel much harder right now (Zoom fatigue is real), it’s important to keep reaching out – for your own sake and the sake of those you love. So, call your mother, FaceTime your BFF, email your coworkers, and text or tweet your friends as often as you can. You’ll all feel a little bit better afterward.
  2. Get plenty of sleep. When you don’t get enough rest, it can be harder to focus and to do your job well. Lack of sleep can also make it harder to deal with your emotions. While the amount of sleep an individual needs varies, most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. For tips on sleeping better during COVID-19, see these sleep guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation.
  3. Keep moving. You don’t need to hear that exercise is good for your health. Exercise helps you mentally and physically in so many ways. But you don’t need to spend hours in the gym to get the benefits. Getting your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day is all it takes to reap the rewards of physical movement, whether that’s all at once or spread throughout the day, such as taking a walk after each meal, climbing the stairs instead of using the elevator, or throwing yourself a solo dance party between interviews.
  4. Eat up and stay hydrated! Journalists are known for their love of pizza, coffee and snacks, but we all know you can’t live on office freebies and takeout forever. Making small changes to your diet add up (read more on incorporating more nutrient-rich options here) and it’s important to eat regularly, whether you prefer three squares or several, smaller meals throughout the day. Limited research has also suggested that dehydration may affect cognitive performance or potentially act as a stressor. However, it is generally advisable as a healthy habit to get plenty of fluids. So, keep a bottle of water handy whenever possible.
  5. Think positively. Yes, that sounds overly simplistic, but we’re not suggesting you become an uber optimist overnight. Positive thinking can be pretty basic, like practicing gratitude or doing something that makes you happy, whether it’s playing a song that makes you smile, listening to some comedy that makes you literally LOL, or scrolling through cute animal pictures on Instagram.
  6. Get help if you need it. There’s no shame in seeking help from a mental health professional. Whether you just need someone to talk to, need medication to help you, or want to seek some other form of treatment, you are not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health offers hotlines to call, treatment providers and tools, and advice on how to find the right professional for you. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also offers a comprehensive guide to finding help. Or you can call your primary care physician for a recommendation.

More Resources:

Want to know more about how to take care of your mental health during these difficult times? Below are some resources specifically for journalists.

How to stay mentally well while reporting on the coronavirus” by First Draft includes an incredible graphic that you can print out to remind yourself of what you can and should do to stay mentally well. The first and most important tip in their guide is “Be aware of the stigma around mental health,” something we all need to be reminded of from time to time.

The Radio Television Digital News Association has a Newsroom Mental Health Resource Guide that includes articles from mental health experts and first-hand accounts by journalists and their newsroom colleagues on their experiences with mental health issues; practical tips on helping yourself and your colleagues during tragedy; and advice on how to head off issues before they start.

How journalists can take care of themselves while covering trauma” from Poynter lists some signs to look out for that will alert you to your own or a colleague’s depression, as well as questions you can ask yourself.

The Lenfest Institute’s “Self-care advice for journalists” includes articles from a diverse group of experts and publishers, such as the Columbia Journalism School (tips on self-care during disaster); the Online News Association (tips on community-based self-care); a clinical psychologist (advice on staying mentally fit during quarantine); and many, many more.

Nieman Storyboard has “5 Tips for Journalists Covering Mental and Behavioral Health,” which focuses on reporting on mental health. However, much of how you report on mental health applies to how you think and talk about it – to yourself, your colleagues and your loved ones.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 for anonymous help with any issues you’re facing. They can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255.

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