Why trauma and mental health must be discussed in journalism schools

A foundation for resiliency needs to be built up before journalists are in the field. Continue Reading Why trauma and mental health must be discussed in journalism schools

I’m almost through a four-year journalism degree at Carleton University in Ottawa, and I’ve only ever had one full lecture discussing journalism and mental health.

It wasn’t the responsibility of the instructor to talk about the mental health stigma that is still very much alive in newsrooms across this country. In fact, the instructor, Joanna Smith, a parliamentary reporter for the Canadian Press and a young journalist herself, and a first-time university lecturer, taught it voluntarily, adding it into the third-year course about in-depth and beat reporting. She told us she felt it was her responsibility as an educator to tell us about the immense physical and mental tolls that come with being a journalist. She even shared her own story of the trauma experienced after covering the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

It was an incredibly raw and visceral discussion. It felt incredibly empowering to have an instructor who was willing to have a frank discussion with her students about the sometimes-harsh realities of pursuing a career in journalism.

As a young journalist just on the other side of graduation, her lecture remains one of the most memorable and most important ones of my entire journalism education. In J-School I’ve had some phenomenal professors and instructors. I’ve heard about the inverted pyramid and arbitrary Canadian Press Style rules countless times, but rarely about what being a journalist might mean for my mental health. That’s a shame. Because we can’t ignore the alarming statistics.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health-related problem or illness in his or her lifetime. Journalists by the very nature of their profession are routinely subjected to things that ordinary people are not. Natural disasters. Violent crime. Civil unrest. As trained observers and purveyors of the truth, journalists are called upon to inform the public. Sometimes that means witnessing some particularly disturbing things. Take crime reporters, for example. Part of their job is to sit in court rooms where they witness shocking testimony, see grisly crime scene images and hear devastating victim impact statements.

While journalism school has helped me prepare to cover breaking news events, press conferences and politics, it barely addressed the ways in which I may be physically, emotionally and mentally impacted by my chosen career. The journalism curriculum offers no courses on journalism and mental health. This is deeply troubling, especially given research by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia School of Journalism that shows that the majority of journalists will witness traumatic events in their line of work.

According to the Dart Center, while journalists tend to be incredibly resilient, they are not immune to long-term physical depression, PTSD and substance abuse. The Dart Center recommends that proper trauma and safety training be a part of a journalist’s education before they even begin working in the field. That means journalism schools have an obligation to their students to provide them with information about the risks of covering traumatic events.

Journalism educators should also teach their students about the ways in which they can protect themselves from on the job stresses and where to turn for help when they can no longer cope.

At a time when newspapers continue to close, layoffs are rampant and legacy media is forced to wage war against Facebook and Google, journalism is more stressful than ever. The expectations of journalists continue to grow as the public demands to receive the news on multiple platforms 24 hours a day. That means professional journalists are working longer hours to keep up with an ever-changing industry.

When students enroll in journalism programs, they should expect not only to learn about the tools of the trade, but also how to take care of themselves on and off the job. As journalism Schools like Carleton continue to adapt their curriculums as the media landscape evolves, it is more important now than ever that they teach young journalists not just how tell stories, but how to recover from them.

Noah Richardson is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. A lover of strong coffee, podcasts and public radio, he hails from Prince Edward Island.