In My Opinion: Paul Holleran: The mental state of the media

NOWHERE in my job description as the Scottish Organiser of the National Union of Journalists does it state that I need qualifications in psychiatry or psychology.

It also doesn’t suggest that requisite skills should include proficiency in counselling to enable me to support members suffering severe mental anguish. However, the day-to-day reality for me is quite removed from the contractual position of the post and it may be time to rewrite the job spec.

Stating the obvious, things have changed somewhat in the media over the last 20 years; and unfortunately not for the better, when it comes to the mental health of journalists and other media workers.

It is becoming increasingly common for me to get calls from stressed-out members, suffering anything from mild anxiety to feeling suicidal.

It’s not just the large number of redundancies in recent years, it’s the threat of more job cuts and the increased workload for those who remain.

And then there is the ‘digital factor’. On newspapers, say, staff are not only required to produce a daily or weekly newspaper, they are also often required to tweet, update other social media and keep a website ticking over. Many journalists now often find themselves on the receiving end of abusive emails, especially when reporting football or politics.

Then there is unacceptable spectrum of bullying appearing to return in some workplaces as pressure grows to deliver more from less.

One thing for certain is that there is a clearer understanding among journalists about mental health.

Many will have seen colleagues, including editors, having to take sick leave because of stress; in the case of some, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. In many cases, their absence can be long-term.

So, we are fortunate and grateful at the NUJ to have struck up a working relationship with SALUS, the Scottish Government’s Healthy Working Lives project and many members have been referred for counselling across the country.

Journalists are partly recognising mental health issues among colleagues as they become more understanding and sensitive of mental health issues across society at large.

For the last 20 years, the NUJ has been advising members on the reporting of mental health and suicide by the media, with a Scottish NUJ pamphlet about the subject now in its fourth edition.

There is a need for an updated version of our guidelines which will include the impact of the internet, including those websites promoting suicide. There is on-going research – involving of the NUJ in Scotland and academics – assessing journalists’ awareness and reporting of mental health and suicide.

We have also worked closely with the Scottish Government as they have developed a new mental health strategy for Scotland, which was launched recently.

Twenty years ago, it was about trying to educate journalists about the reporting of mental health issues; now, we are also dealing with it on our own doorstep.

Paul Holleran is Scottish Organiser of the National Union of Journalists.