Have you ever fantasized about being featured as a New York Times bestselling author, making ground-breaking discoveries as a researcher, designing iconic buildings as a renowned architect, or leading a successful business as a CEO?

Now, there’s nothing wrong with romanticizing about your dream career. However, for young aspiring journalists, it is important for them to be prepared for the realities of their career. This includes not only the adventurous aspects of the job, but also the risks they may encounter to both their physical and mental health when covering stories on violence or trauma.

This is by no means a new issue. For a while now, journalists have plunged themselves into war zones, scouted out dangerous drug dealings and followed investigations of sickening murders without any psychological preparation. Luckily, The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma is trying to change this by facilitating discussion and research on the importance of journalists’ mental well-being.

The Forum was co-founded by the husband-wife duo, Cliff Lonsdale and Jane Hawkes, to address how violent or traumatic events can influence the reporters who cover the stories, as well as the individuals experiencing the events. More specifically, it outlines how to respond to the mental strain that journalists might receive from covering stories on violence and trauma.

The two believed that if journalists were afflicted with stress from an assignment – be it from reporting in a war zone or a disturbing murder trial – they should receive acknowledgement and support for any mental traumas that they incurred from the experience.

Why hasn’t this issue been addressed before?

Well, often times, journalists were simply told to “toughen up” and continue on with their assignment.

“I have to say that there were times when, if a correspondent in a war zone appeared to be cracking up, we would get him out of there and send him away for a couple of weeks and expect him just to go right back in without any kind of help or support,” said Professor Jeffrey Dvorkin, a board member of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma and director of the University of Toronto’s Journalism program.

Dvorkin commented that, initially, journalists resisted trying to change this practice. “Journalists were worried that, and this still is a problem, if they admitted to any kind of psychological distress that this would exclude them from future assignments.”

In other words, the journalists, who are often blamed for spreading the mental illness stigma, are also victims of it. It was this line of thinking that led to the journalism field guide called Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health.

“As we look at how journalists regarded other journalists who had PTSD and how you try and change that, it became clear that it was part of a bigger picture,” Lonsdale explained. “If we can get journalists thinking about other people [with mental illness] that way, then maybe we can get journalists thinking about other journalists [with mental illness] that way too.”

The field guide, written by journalists and created through a collaboration between the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, CBC News, and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, addressed how journalists should report events regarding mental health.

Since the launch of Mindset in April of 2014, almost 6000 English and French copies have been distributed to journalism schools and newsrooms across Canada. This guide (also available as a PDF for download) acts as a checklist for reporters, giving them advice on how to be both careful and specific about the language and diagnoses of mental illnesses.

“This is about getting people to actually change their mindset, in terms of questions to ask and things to be sensitive about,” said Hawkes.

She continued to explain that the guide isn’t geared for all journalists, “Our goal, always with this guide, was really to calibrate it so that it was useful to general assignment reporters, not people whose area of expertise is mental health. It’s for somebody who might be sent to a crime story, for example, and are not prepared when it becomes apparent that there is a mental health aspect.”

The Forum also continues to change the journalist’s mindset towards their own mental health by targeting journalism schools and taking the “educational approach” as Lonsdale coined it. “We bring in people who’ve been in war zones, people who had run into trouble domestically, we bring in a psychiatrist or psychologist. We do a one-day workshop with them, saying, in effect: ‘This is the stuff you didn’t learn in class about what this job can do to you. But the good news is, if you recognize it, you can deal with it.'”

In other words, it’s a bottom-up strategy where young journalists will come into the field aware of the potential risks and unwilling to tolerate an organization’s demand to “just do what they’re told”. And hopefully, their awareness of their own mental health, as well as their peers’, will translate to more respectful and sensitive coverage of mental health.


By: Serena Soleimani

Edited by: Veerpal Bambrah

Image by: Jenny Soriano