A year ago next week, Robin Williams took his own life. In the days that followed, we learned that a contributing factor was depression.
That set off the usual mad dash of journalists across the nation scrambling to find every local psychologist or psychiatrist to bring perspective on emotional illness.
That helped. For three, possibly four weeks, we had a whirlwind of national and local conversation on the subject many still want to keep in the closet.
Full disclosure: I have had a serious bout with clinical depression not once but twice. The first time happened 24 years ago when I was a television news director—-not in a megamarket but in Jackson, Tn. The second time was five years ago while supervising a daily student cable newscast as professor of broadcast journalism at Union University. In each instance, I needed at least six months before I resumed feeling like me.
I don’t make my experience the icebreaker of conversations with people I have never previously met. Likewise, I do not run from an open dialogue about an illness suffered by nearly a tenth of Americans. Those of us who have encountered depression not only can but must talk about it in an effort to help others who have it and don’t understand it.
When one is in a higher-profile profession such as television news, your on-air face and personality are what viewers see. Their stereotyped vision of a communicator who visits in their home virtually every night filters out the reality that television newscasters are real people, too. Journalists have bills to pay, experience challenges at home, lose loved ones and are exposed firsthand to the same types of negative news viewers often detest.
Psychological studies tell us younger people are increasingly vulnerable to depression, particularly in high-demand, high-stress professions. Here are a few other key facts:
—-Women are more likely to have depression than men.
—-Vulnerability to depression increases with age, according to WebMD.com.
—-Mayo Clinic tells us one in five will experience some form of the disorder by the time they are 25.
Small-to-medium market news departments are populated heavily by men and women in the 22-28 age bracket. Most of them are full of idealistic career goals, competitive fuel and boundless energy.
Still, look at the numbers: one in five young adults are likely to have experienced some form of depression by the age of 25. Television news is a profession that can play right into the vulnerabilities.
In the mid-1980s, I flew back from the Radio-Television News Directors Association with a colleague from a much larger neighboring market. He attended one of the same seminars as did I on stresses the newsroom brings to one’s personal life. That session included a whirlwind, throw-on-the-dartboard exchange about depression. Thirty years ago, the subject of emotional illness was largely compartmentalized.
“That was an interesting session,” my colleague said, “but in my newsroom or in television news in general, there’s just no room for someone with depression or any kind of emotional illness.”
I said, “Would it interest you that my father has battled depression off and on for 14 years—and he’s a minister? I submit to you that the demands of administering a church, satisfying the sometimes fickle nature of a congregation and being on call around-the-clock in times of illness, death, or church members’ crises is every bit as stressful as running a TV newsroom.”
My friend admitted he had never pondered that contrast but I am fairly certain he didn’t buy into it. I wonder what he thinks today.
My colleague at Union University, Dr. Joanne Stephenson, offers a weekly “Dr. Joanne” segment on our daily cable newscast “Jackson 24/7” produced by journalism students. Dr. Joanne was a huge catalyst for my recovery from depression five years ago. She says the newsroom can be a breeding ground for depression even in well-adjusted people.
“You have all the ingredients: multiple deadlines, uneven schedules, frequently on call, competitive pressures, lack of sleep, difficult bosses, and repeated exposure to tragedy,” Dr. Joanne says. “Even the best of us would struggle to maintain a balance in our lives to avoid tipping the scales toward depression.”
I am typically not a fan of The Huffington Post, but that online service offered a solid five-part series in May, “A Mental Health Epidemic in the Newsroom.”
Dr. Elana Newman of the University of Tulsa discussed journalistic stresses in the opening segment of that series. “Almost all journalists are exposed to traumatic-stress experiences,” Dr. Newman said. She included reporters who are among the first on the scene for automobile accidents, shootings, train derailments or other occurrences that potentially lead to critical injuries or death.
Here is another revealing irony by Gabriel Arana, who authored The HuffPost story: “Journalists are notoriously reluctant to divulge information about themselves.” Arana quoted from three different research studies that indicated:
—-85 percent of journalists encounter some form of work-related trauma
—-Up to 20 percent of journalists experience depression
—-Instances of nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety occur frequently enough in journalists to take a toll.
Both of my bouts with clinical depression were largely triggered by exhaustion. Read the textbooks about a typical Type A personality and fill in the blank with my name. I inherited an intense work drive gene from my father. I have a tendency to go at a pace that, candidly, is unrealistic for one individual.
In each instance, I saw the warning signs of a breakdown but was mired in that mistaken belief that I could “work myself” out of it. I could not—-and paid the price.
I will detail more about the first bout in a later vignette. In 2010, depression came on from a monster amount of overwork in supervising a five-a-week student newscast that can only replicate, not duplicate, the actual TV newsroom. I failed to remind myself that I have students only for four hours a week, not 40. Typically, they are carrying academic loads that include four other courses, all of which have a variety of demands. Exhaustion set in and so did depression.
At the end of a noon broadcast in March 2010, Dr. Joanne waited until the students all left, looked me in the eye and said, “This……..is an intervention.” I knew that had to happen. I just did not know when. Thankfully, Dr. Joanne was in the studio for an interview segment that day and pulled the trigger. I asked how she knew I was in depression. “I could see it in your eyes,” she said. “You’ve been headed down this path for more than a month.”
I am an example of what happens when a journalism supervisor or administrator does what an old colleague at WRBL in Columbus, Ga., H.K. Johnston, once observed: “Burnin’ the candle at both ends and runnin’ outta wick.”
Yet, the rank-and-file, those young, fresh out of college or three-to-six-year veteran reporters, producers and videographers are the ones on the firing line every day. They are the ones who receive the 3 a.m. calls to cover an overnight fire or shooting. They are the ones regularly exposed to crime or other tragedy. They are the ones who have to find their niche in a competitive environment of egos and career-climbers. They are the ones who encounter bosses who are sometimes under such stress to deliver ratings and performance that they neglect to get to know or understand their employees as people.
Managements of every television station in America ought to be paying attention. The scenario I outlined in the previous paragraph and those earlier research statistics suggest the odds are at least one to three people in their newsrooms could be dealing with at least short-term depression or trauma disorders.
Before I left daily television news in the 1990s, not one station I worked for offered a specifically designated reference for counseling from a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Some stations provided insurance that covered emotional illness; some didn’t.
Arana detailed the story of John McCusker, a New Orleans photojournalist who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina but continued to cover the destruction day after day. The grind and exposure to the disaster took its toll. McCusker was diagnosed with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder. As in many cases with journalists and the vast non-news public, he was reluctant to admit he was ill.
“I didn’t feel I could show weakness because there were so many brave people showing strength around me,” McCusker told Arana in the HuffPost. “There is an element of not wanting to be vulnerable, wanting to project strength.”
One of my own observations about the television news industry is its parallel to my perceptions of those in college and pro football. So much emphasis is perpetuated on being mentally tough that admitting to depression or any form of emotional illness is unfortunately regarded as a sign of weakness.
“There’s this notion you’ve got to be tough,” McCusker told Arana. “You’re a human being — don’t forget that. No one’s expecting you to be anything more or less than that.”
Dr. Joanne frequently debunks the weakness theory or the fear factor of admitting a need for help because of a still-existing stigma attached to depression.
“You wouldn’t try to do your own surgery on a broken leg. You wouldn’t try to deal with an abscessed tooth yourself,” she says. “We’ve got to get over this ridiculous notion that depression or any other emotional illness is any different than a physical illness. Depression is often caused by things related to physical illness.”
One of the issues is a failure of broadcast managements, as well as some in other fields, to recognize the emotional toll television news takes on even the strongest staff members.
Only two of the stations for which I worked over the years offered a membership at a YMCA (in the era before fitness centers began to emerge on every corner). At least in those instances, opportunities were available for physical exercise that is a strong antidote to stress.
Never was a local psychologist contracted for an in-house seminar to aid staffs on other countermeasures to reduce tension and stress that lead to depression. Such a move may actually save companies money in employee illnesses and absences.
In my succeeding vignettes, I will share more of my own journey with depression during my years as a broadcast journalist and a journalism professor. I will also approach depression from the perspective of young broadcasters, from mistakes managements make in recognizing warning signs of and possible interventions for emotional illness, and proposals to the entire industry on how to deal with a real illness that affects more people in television than anyone cares to admit.
Nearly a year ago, Robin Williams died from the extreme ravages of emotional depression.
We should not need the death of an international celebrity to have an intelligent, sensitive and open dialogue about emotional illness—-including its potential impact on television newsrooms.
Stay tuned for Part 2.