Journalism is years behind other professions in how it deals with trauma. So this week, coinciding with Mental Illness Awareness Week, CJR is publishing a series of stories from members of the journalism community who’ve dealt with mental health, illness, or treatment. We asked each journalist the same two questions: 1) What has been the toll of the profession on your mental health, and how do you manage it? and 2) How can the industry work to better address the stigma still surrounding mental illness within the journalism community?
The third dispatch, from freelance journalist Gabriel Arana, is below. It’s been edited for length and clarity. Arana is a contributing writer at Salon and contributing editor at The American Prospect. In 2015, he wrote a five-part series on mental health in the newsroom for HuffPost. We’ll be publishing more firsthand accounts throughout the week. Special thanks to our friends at BuzzFeed who inspired this series.
On his personal experiences:
The first time I noticed the toll [was when I worked on a story about conversion therapy]. As a teenager, I went through three-and-a-half years of “ex-gay” conversion therapy, and years later at The American Prospect, someone suggested a piece on the ex-gay movement, and I said [they] should really let me write it. So it became a weird assignment because it was both personal and reported. I remember thinking, it’s been 10 years since I had this therapy. I’m a lot older now. I’m over it.
I found the experience re-traumatizing in a way I never expected. I was talking to ghosts from my own past. I talked to my ex-therapist for the piece. I talked to other people who had gone through therapy. I had a therapy buddy who I interviewed who divorced his family and was now homeless. I found the entire experience to be re-traumatizing and started drinking a lot to deal with it. I felt really depressed. People knew I had gone through this therapy, but nobody ever asked me if I was okay, or how I was doing, or if I was being affected by it. So I think that was the first time I really noticed my profession had an effect on my mental health. I ended up getting treatment.
One of the things I found most interesting (while writing the HuffPost piece) was that people who are exposed to trauma intermittently suffer the most, because people who are in conflict zones all the time, a) get support, and b) develop robust defense mechanisms because they’re dealing with it all the time.
On fighting the stigma in journalism:
I think it’s about, and it sounds so cliché, but changing the culture. Reporting on things that are devastating and sad and that make you think the world is a horrible place where there is no justice—being able to talk about that with colleagues, and the peer support that comes along with that—is shown to be the most effective buffer against PTSD.
Admitting weakness and admitting vulnerability is difficult for people to do, but it’s healing and helps others. More people [need to be] speaking out and changing the culture because, in journalism, there’s a macho culture. You’re supposed to be a superhuman observer of history who is immune to things, and not the one suffering.
Institutionally, I think certain places have done things that have shown to be effective, like the Associated Press does trauma education. Even training at the beginning of employees’ tenure about how you’ll have difficult conversations, and you’re going to have to ask rape victims about being raped, for example, and it’s okay to need time to talk about it. It’s okay to suffer. Trainings like that set the tone.
CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.