The Mental Health of a Journalist on the Covid-19 Frontline

·13-min read

On April 24, Shivakumar BM, a video journalist working with a Kannada news channel in Bengaluru became the first journalist in the city to test positive for Covid-19.

It was 31 days into a nationwide lockdown, during which the virus had claimed more than 700 lives and infected over 23,000 people. Journalists were in the thick of it all, telling the stories of the deserted streets, downed shutters, masked police patrols, health workers in PPE, ICUs overflowing with the dying and of the desperation of migrants trying to reach home and safety, even as the grim count of deaths and infections continued to rise. For Shivakumar, and many journalists on the front line, those were days of fear, isolation and depression.

“People did not talk to me. It was the beginning of the pandemic and people did not have the awareness they have now. My personal details were doing (the) rounds on WhatsApp. Three or four people called me up to abuse me, neighbours asked me to vacate (my) home. A local MLA had to intervene to tell the locals I was out (on the streets) on duty; it wasn’t my fault. I was worried for my wife and four-and-a-half-year-old daughter,” he said.

While he was at the hospital, rumours spread that he was being laid off with a severance pay. Others blamed him for “holidaying” in his hometown Kalaburagi from where they believe he contracted the virus. Not many knew that Shivakumar had returned from Kalaburagi after the funeral of his two-year-old son who died on February 10.

“I was kind of depressed already,” says Shivakumar, as his voice cracks. “We had spent lakhs on his treatment but could not save him. My friends were worried that I would take the extreme step. Before I could come to terms with this, I was infected and the rest followed,” he says.

The first death in India due to SARS-CoV-2 was reported from Kalaburagi on March 11, fifteen days after Shivakumar returned to Bengaluru and more than a month before he tested positive.

Ajay*, a photojournalist in Bengaluru, is struggling to pay his bills after the lockdown forced many of them to take a salary cut.

“Organisations tell employees to stay safe and work from home but photojournalists don’t have that luxury. Not many of us had any personal protective equipment. We have even covered crematoriums for pictures. In such places, it is always a dilemma to shoot what your job needs and respecting the subject’s privacy. Fortunately, some editors are understanding which helps,” says Ajay.

“Sometimes, our organisation tells us to stay away from the office. They want pictures, they want the job done. But when it comes to sacking, photojournalists are the primary target. My workload has been the same for the past three months but my pay is less than half. My family and I are struggling to make both ends meet. I am at the verge of selling my house. With decades of experience, I am in a situation where I have to beg for a job but my self-respect doesn’t allow that. I stayed strong when I was infected by the virus in the initial months even when fear was high among people and many called me up to blame me. But this effect of the pandemic is breaking me down. People say journalists are safe but I am looking for means to survive,” he says.

Little is spoken about the mental health of journalists like him who risk infection on a daily basis, in the course of duty. “This is the one group which has been left out. Healthcare professionals and police have been covered. The other group which has a lot of social interaction is the media. They expose themselves when they are out in the field. There is huge pressure. There is limited coverage of other stories since the pandemic began. With a lot of it shifting to social media, there is a lot of competition between media,” says Dr Pratima Murthy, professor of psychiatry, NIMHANS, at a webinar for journalists, with the department of mental health, Government of Karnataka, where several journalists expressed concerns over how the job during the pandemic was affecting their mental health. “You are into news, you are right inside, so you can’t switch off which is a big stress for those in the media,” she points out.

About a thousand kilometres from Bengaluru, television journalists in Mumbai haven’t switched off for a year now. October last year until December saw the state government formation. January and February saw a rift in the Maha Vikas Aghadi and, in March, the pandemic hit. Maharashtra reported a record number of cases every day. Many journalists masked up, observed physical distancing even on duty and sanitised their hands diligently and voluntarily isolated themselves from their elderly parents, spouses or young children for weeks at a time, to ensure that their families would be safe. Then came the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

“Social distancing norms were thrown out of the window, caution was thrown to the winds as the public gathered for the first time in months. It has been a scary period. Already, a personal low has been staying away from the family for four months at a time when a family member was undergoing treatment and hospitalisation for a serious illness. It broke me down to work [non-stop], stay in the hospital with the relative, and then come back to an empty house which didn't have the buzz of my husband and my kid,” says a journalist who did not wish to be identified. “Hearing about this, somebody who belongs to our age group who killed himself, it does impact your mental health. It takes a toll on your commitment and engagement,” says another journalist who wished to remain anonymous.

With lockdown restrictions shutting down eateries, getting food and water became a challenge for most reporters. It was a triple whammy. “Initially nobody would send us food and water to the field. Most days we were on air by 8am. We would be live until 10pm. Many live far away from the workplace so travel takes about an hour or more which means we are home and can sleep for a maximum of six hours. During the day, we would chase the newsmakers, take their soundbites in the crowd. Some of us fell sick but you could not take leave for more than two or three days. There is always that fear of contracting the virus,” says another journalist.

Only two of these journalists reported having some form of psychosocial support from their organisation through phone calls, HR managers checking in on how they were feeling and assuring that there was nothing to worry about which partially helped them, they say.

However, there is little research done on journalists battling intense and sustained mental stress as they witness the toll the pandemic is taking on human lives on a daily basis.

A global survey of 1,400 English-speaking journalists in 125 countries by the international Centre of Journalists and the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University found that the psychological and emotional impact of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis was what media persons identified as the most difficult aspect of their work during the period. More than 80% of respondents noted at least one negative psychological effect, including anxiety, burnout, difficulty sleeping and a sense of helplessness.

During the early stages of the Covid outbreak, a survey done by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Toronto showed that a significant number of journalists showed signs of anxiety and depression.

The study, done in June this year, surveyed 73 experienced journalists, working at large, established news media houses with an average of 18 years of experience. All of them, who have worked on stories directly related to the pandemic, were asked to answer a set of questions on their working conditions and emotional state.

The survey, with a response rate of 63 per cent showed that the majority of respondents, around 70 per cent, suffered from some levels of psychological distress and suggested that 26 per cent have clinically significant anxiety compatible with the diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder which includes symptoms of worry, feeling on edge, insomnia, poor concentration and fatigue.

Around 11 per cent of respondents reported prominent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which include recurrent intrusive thoughts and memories of a traumatic Covid-19-related event, a desire to avoid recollections of the event, and feelings of guilt, fear, anger, horror and shame.

Sixty per cent reported working longer hours since the pandemic and more demand for stories because of the pandemic. “This combined tension of covering a new, complex beat with high and often personal stakes combined with a dramatic change in working patterns may well have contributed directly to the high levels of mental distress and anxiety,” the study noted. The respondents stated that their organisations were moderately supportive.

Sarika Gupta*, a health reporter working with a print news organisation in Delhi, found it difficult to cope with the change in working pattern coupled with personal concerns.

“When the pandemic broke there was tremendous work pressure. Firstly, we were working from home, constantly calling officials, searching for inputs. And as stories of suffering started emerging, people losing their families, I started panicking but had no ways to vent it. I am from Kolkata where my parents are. They are senior citizens and have comorbid conditions. In the initial months, there was no transportation. I mean if something had happened, I wouldn't have been able to reach. So all these started badly affecting me. No matter how many times you call or do a video chat, it is not sufficient,” says Sarika.

“And on the other hand, my work pressure was constantly on the rise. We hardly got any weekly offs and layoffs had started across different media platforms so you could not take work lightly at all. I was scared of losing my job. It was a total mess. It became so bad that I couldn't sleep the whole night. I was scared of bad dreams. I would sleep at 8 or 9 in the morning, for hardly 3-4 hours in total. It was affecting my performance at work and my health. I would randomly start crying. I tried telephonic counselling but it did not work for me. These 8 months I had a constant struggle between prioritising work or family,” she says.

Sarika adds that she was unable to communicate through phone what she was going through. She told herself this was a phase, maybe she was overthinking, and tried ignoring the signs.

“I tried yoga, meditation, watching YouTube, listened to soothing music while trying to sleep, turned to alcohol intake, but nothing worked. I would start crying randomly, without any reason. And felt better to just lie down on the bed,” she recalls.

Sarika is now with her parents and is “slightly better”. Many like Sarika relied on telephonic consultations due to the restrictions imposed by the lockdown which did not allow meeting people face to face.

“It [Experience] is variable. It [telephonic consultations] is useful to keep the communication going. Some people find it unsatisfying to speak over the phone. There are other elements of human contact including non-verbal communication between a doctor and patient which would be missing over a phone call. Clarity of call, technological aspects also adds to this. It also depends upon who is at the other end. If they are not very experienced, patient and empathetic, for some people, it can become off-putting. Equally there are a lot of other people who have got a lot of help, who have been pointed in the right direction,” says Dr Prathima Murthy.

While many news organisations now constantly mail employees to check on their physical health, remind them to take precautions, few reported having a system that enquired about their mental well-being.

Hannah Storm, CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network , addressed these concerns and more in a seminar she addressed for the Reuters Institute this September.

Storm, who accepted a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD at the end of last year, says there are still immense stigmas that exist.

“Mental ill health often comes with a large dose of shame, but in my experience there’s also a real fear that an admission you are suffering will compromise your career. Time and again colleagues have told me they keep quiet for fear of missing out on a particular assignment. Ours is a macho industry, one where being tough is the default,” she says.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the journalism industry faced a crisis of trust, pressure of being hyper-connected, relentless breaking news, a volume of voices and noise that one needed to sift through in order to figure out what was fact and what was fiction. The pandemic only worsened the effect of the combination of these factors.

During her time at the International News Safety Institute where she worked the last decade, Hannah says she learned the language of mental health and saw how newsrooms seemed more adept at conversations around physical than emotional safety.

“For many years, discussions around mental health were mainly limited to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental illness which can develop when people are exposed to, or witness, life-threatening events. This is a serious condition, but one that is treatable and still relatively rare in terms of the numbers it affects. And if these conversations were limited to PTSD, they were further focused on foreign correspondents and the assumption that PTSD really only happened to those who went to war. We didn’t really talk about PTSD when it manifested itself in other ways: for the local journalists who were exposed to trauma day in and day out and who could never escape, or those who reported on murders or road traffic collisions, journalists who were effectively one of a set of early responders to a scene of tragedy,” she says.

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks of events that were traumatic and the person goes through the same amount of distress as it was during the real event. The person may feel irritable, get withdrawn, social life gets affected and have insomnia. Quality of work performance can also come down. The symptoms require a clinical diagnosis by a certified mental health professional.

“We didn’t seem to be considering the spectrum of mental health concerns that impact journalists, one in which PTSD lies at the far end and other issues along the rest of the continuum, no less valid and sometimes more prevalent – such as anxiety, stress, depression, or vicarious trauma which can come about as a result of being exposed to graphic images – or moral injury,” she adds.

These observations, the study and the experiences of the journalists quoted above, point to how longer exposure to the work culture does not necessarily guarantee immunity from the negative aspects of it. In other words, you are never fully prepared to take it, especially in an industry where one faces uncertainty as long as they are on the job. Mental health of journalists matters too even if they have trained their brains over the years that it is all part of the job, that they must be objective, unaffected and that they are never the story. The pandemic may have given a window of opportunity for organisations to reshape how they view mental health.