When journalists suffer in silence: the mental health risk of media workers

Mental health risks associated with journalism shouldn’t be underestimated, psychologist warns 

Journalists from all local media houses gathered in Valletta on Thursday
Journalists from all local media houses gathered in Valletta on Thursday

Malta’s journalists have passed through a turbulent 2017.

A poisonous election campaign unfolded in the midst of grave allegations of bribery and corruption against the Prime Minister and Labour ministers. But the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on Monday sent shockwaves throughout the Maltese islands.

Many have rightly described the attack as one on freedom of expression in Malta, with journalists now concerned about their safety and apprehensive about the environment in which they work.

The mental health charity Richmond Foundation on Saturday held a one-day mental health First Aid course for media professionals, focusing on how workers can identity symptoms in people development mental health problems.

“It does not teach people to treat or diagnose mental health,” psychologist Daniela Calleja  Bitar emphasised. “The training teaches people how to offer initial support until appropriate professional help is received.”

Calleja Bitar, operations manager at Richmond Foundation, said that in additional to physical and psychological violence, media workers had to be mindful of their mental health.

“Mental health problems are as common as one in four people, with journalism being particularly challenging. Because of the nature of the job, most journalists are exposed to traumatic events which they have to report and photograph,” she said. 

“Being exposed to these events may impact a person’s mental health, so knowing what symptoms to look out for and what professional help is needed is very important.”  

Indeed, a study on the journalistic profession carried out by Marilyn Clark of the University of Malta’s Psychology Department, for the Council of Europe (CoE), found that up to 69% of journalists in CoE countries reported experiencing intimidation, harassment and other instances of psychological violence at some point during their career. 

Speaking to MaltaToday back in June, Prof. Clark had said that over the last decade, a number of forces had been brought into play that threaten journalists’ critical voices.

“The problem with all of this is that journalists are sometimes afraid to write the facts. Consequently, people are left in the dark; and this is a threat to our democracy. I would say it often arises directly from psychological violence, as attested by the 69% statistic… in the last three years alone, 31% had experienced some kind of physical assault. But almost 70% reported psychological violence.”

Failure to spot symptoms of mental distress often leads to those experiencing it to intuitively feel something is not right, even suffer for the condition. But they would not think to take the necessary steps to improve the situation

Reporting murders and crime, in addition to consuming disturbing content in the newsroom, could drive some people to develop mental health problems

Calleja Bitar said that reporting events such as traffic accidents, fires, murders and crime, in addition to consuming potentially violent or disturbing content in the newsroom, could drive some people to develop mental health problems such as anxiety-related disorders, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The execution of Caruana Galizia has itself sent the nation into shock, Calleja Bitar said, adding sadness, disbelief, fear and anger to the lethal cocktail of emotion. “People are experiencing a sense of insecurity on various levels.”

She emphasised that people needed to understand they “are emotionally charged” and that they needed to be aware of their actions, adding that society had to be particularly sensitive to the fact that it contained many different opinions, which people had a right to express.

“[People] have a right to demonstrate their feelings, this should happen in a way that is not harmful to others or the environment. If a person considers that they may not be in a position to control their emotions, they should avoid places where there may be other persons, and instead find suitable alternative ways of channelling their emotions.”

Calleja Bitar said that journalists and media professionals carried a great responsibility, especially during such a delicate time, since they set the tone of the national discourse.

Journalists can’t counter power alone 

Describing Monday’s event as an attack on those who try to “articulate ideas and understand social truths”, Andrew Azzopardi, the Dean of the Faculty of Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta, insisted that “journalists cannot carry the weight of counterbalancing power on their own.”

He said it was also the role of academia to “stand up and protect the right to ensure and guarantee the common good. As a community, we must understand that we are all co-responsible for each other’s wellbeing.”

In a statement, the faculty was appealing for level-headiness in public debate, the acknowledgment of the importance of journalists to society, the assurance of institutional impartiality, safeguards against the demonization of journalists by political parties, along with the promotion of a more active civil society. 

Above all, Azzopardi said that a culture of fear should never be accepted. “Fear is the enemy of critical thought and mature debate, which ultimately drives the pursuit of truth through knowledge.”

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