Jan Wong on why journalists need to talk about mental illness

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 final dispatch, from journalist and author Jan Wong, is below. It’s been edited for length and clarity. She is a journalism professor at St. Thomas University and the author of five books, including Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness, which chronicles her struggles with workplace-related depression. We’re publishing firsthand accounts throughout the week. Special thanks to our friends at BuzzFeed who inspired this series.

 

On her personal experiences:

Normally I thrive on adrenaline and deadlines and pressures. In my case, clinical depression was triggered by a backlash from the public about a story (in 2006) about racism in Quebec. What I said (in the article) was Quebec has a tradition of racial purity, and they have a term for it called “pure laine,” which means “pure wool” and jargon for “pure blood.”

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I was deluged with hate mail. [This was] before Twitter and before Facebook became very popular. It was basically email and snail mail. I got death threats. I got my book sent to me, sawn in half with a power tool. That was the trigger (for my depression). So I started becoming very anxious, very frightened. But what really plunged me under was the behavior of my newspaper (The Globe and Mail). They decided what I wrote about Quebec was a problem because, at the time, our ownership was a phone company, Bell Canada. So very uncharacteristically, the publisher got involved in the story and launched an investigation into it. My editors were very puzzled as to what they were investigating because there were no corrections. There was nothing wrong. But the article attracted huge interest. The prime minister wrote a letter attacking me in The Globe and Mail; so did the premier of Quebec. There was a vote taken in Parliament to unanimously denounce me.

When I started becoming really sick, I had no experience with clinical depression. I said I needed time off from work, and that’s when this huge battle erupted with my employer, [which] did not believe that I was sick. And it went on and on, and I got worse and worse. A reporter has only her credibility, and when your own newspaper thinks you’re lying, you really feel terrible. I had psychiatrists evaluate me and write reports, and they affirmed I had severe clinical depression. In the end, my newspaper ordered me back to work. I refused to go, mindful I would be fighting for every other reporter who had a mental illness on the job and needed to be open about it. Then my newspaper fired me. That started two more years of meditation and court proceedings.

 

On fighting the stigma in journalism:

At my particular newspaper, they were faced with a very clear-cut case with three medical professionals’ notes, including their psychiatrist. They didn’t believe me, so they forced me to go to an independent (psychiatrist) to be evaluated. What the industry has to do is hold management accountable. They think we’re so afraid of stigma that we won’t speak about it. As journalists, we can’t be afraid. When I was sick, I was thinking, “Oh if I go public with this, I’ll never work again because we work essentially with our minds.” But that’s not true: I don’t have any trouble working, and I am fully recovered.

We have to be public about it and force the hand of the owners and managers of newspapers, because we’re in a workplace like any other. They write stories about mental health in the workplace, but they don’t clean up their own backyard. We have to take this out of the shadows, and people have to fight for their right to be sick.

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.