Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too: We Have to Stamp Out Stigma (Part 4 of 4)

Ken Barlow is a meteorologist in Minneapolis-St. Paul on KSTP.  I have never met him.  Though he doesn’t know it, he is a hero to me.

Five years ago, Amy Carlson Gustafson detailed the day when Ken was emceeing activities concurrent to a walk for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  Here is just a snippet of what Gustafson wrote in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press:

“He knew the time was right to share his own battle with mental illness. He believed these folks — many holding ‘End Stigma’ signs — could understand what the popular KSTP-TV meteorologist was going through.

“When I was standing up there, I was thinking, these people came here to end the stigma of mental illness, and I’m up here living one — I’m afraid of this stigma,” Barlow said during an interview in a Minneapolis coffee shop near KSTP. “I thought as I was on that stage two weeks ago, I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to be ashamed. Two million people have this in the country, and millions of others deal with depression and other forms of mental illness. I’m not alone.”

Ken Barlow was 50 at the time.  Five years earlier, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  He would be the first to tell you that depression, which is not one size fits all, does not necessarily mean one is bipolar.  In fact, a small percentage of those who have depression have the dramatic mood swings that are classified as bipolar.

Ken is a hero to me because he has a large, captive audience in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  For him to reveal his struggles with depression in front of 4,000 people at that walk took a major step of faith and courage.

I shared in a previous installment of this series how I don’t feel my similar public revelation is significantly courageous because my father, who battled depression for his final 42 years, paved the way for me.  He began speaking out about his emotional illness in the 1990’s at a time when the stigma still loomed larger than today.

This blog series is not intended in any way to suggest that everyone who goes into journalism, especially the highly-intense world of television news, will experience depression or a related mental illness.

Despite its challenges and mentally-draining demands, a huge majority of those in a TV newsroom will never contract depression.  

What this series is designed to do is to open the eyes of corporate and local managements who often are too obsessed with the bottom line that emotional illness can and probably already has struck in your newsroom and you may not even know it.

Telling my own story in Part 3 is a call to any journalist who has experienced the lows of depression that it’s okay.  You don’t have to be afraid of it.  You don’t have to avoid seeking help for an illness that requires treatment in the same manner as dealing with the flu or pneumonia.  You don’t have to be reluctant to take medication to help you become whole again, even if you are on the meds for an extended period.   You are also not alone.  If you have a supervisor who even dares suggest you are not mentally tough if you have depression, then that person is speaking out of utter ignorance.  You have people who are speaking up in order to break down the remaining stigmas attached to depression.  I and the Ken Barlows of the world have your back.

Let’s examine a few things about the work and demands of journalists that make people who pursue that career vulnerable to emotional illness:

Constant Exposure to Death and Destruction

Reporters who are on a regular crime beat are going to face scene after scene of bad things happening to good and bad people.  At times, this can be gruesome.  Repeated exposure to the ugly side of life cannot help but affect one’s emotions unless one is inhuman.  Forty years ago, covering four of the seven murders of a serial killer in Columbus, Ga., had its effect on me.  After a few weeks of what became an eight-month saga, one began to shudder every time a police monitor would sound.  If a reporter does not have a personal diversion or hobby, constant witnessing and detailing murders, weather-related tragedies, or physical abuse can make one vulnerable to depression.

Time and Deadline Demands

We felt these in the 1970’s when local news was, at most, one hour in the early evening and 30 minutes in a huge number of cities.  Scrambling to deliver reports live, having to change and adapt lineups at the eleventh hour or even during newscasts, battling one’s competition for story breaks, and now having to do two and three hours of afternoon and early evening news in markets that realistically do not generate that much original news (and in many instances with no extra personnel to handle news expansions) is not how much of the rest of the world functions.  We either know that or soon realize it when we enter the profession.  Speed and deadlines are part of the job.  Yet, often the end result is a difficulty in winding down at the end of the day (or evening) because of the whirlwind on which one constantly is.  I visited with a journalist recently from a station that doubled its news time but only added one producer to handle the load.  Over lunch, I noticed the person’s hand literally shaking.  Nerves had built to that point because of stress and overwork.  None of these represent a path to strong emotional health.

Newsroom Conflicts

Conflicts are not unique to newsrooms.  One will find them in any profession.  However, because of the deadline pressures and—at times—ego battles over story assignments, story placement, or personalities, those conflicts can erupt into stress-inducing disputes that are rarely healthy.  Sometimes, they become loud and public. Trust me, I’ve seen many of them over the years.  When I was a news director, I periodically had to mediate them or break them up.  Regardless of your line of work, conflict environments often create apprehension or anxiety about going to your office.   Ongoing and unresolved conflicts are definite toll-takers.

Erratic Sleep Patterns

Again, this is one of these intangibles that go with the territory.  Sleep deprivation is one catalyst for depression.  For many news anchors and news personnel who work the late shift, namely the traditional 10 or 11 o’clock broadcasts, a challenge is to wind down after the news.  When I anchored at 11, I rarely could drop off to sleep before 1 a.m.  Too much cranks in the mind for too long during the day and night to immediately relax.  If anchors—male or female—have children, an early wakeup may offer the only opportunity to have any meaningful time with their families.  That often means abbreviated sleep.

Add to that the irregular sleep schedules for people who work the morning shifts.  When local television found a profit center before sunrise and gradually eased early morning news back to 4 a.m. starts, that meant producers and editors for the early morning began entering for their shifts as the late news team departed.  That means unnatural, erratic sleep hours that often are inconsistent.  

As Dr. Joanne Stephenson says, “Lack of sleep, inconsistent sleep, or unconventional sleeping schedules can play havoc with your emotional health.”

Inconsiderate or Abusive Bosses

Sure, they’re everywhere in any profession.  This is not to besmirch many good news directors who are fair and considerate with their staffs.  However, take a poll and you will know doubt find the most significant cause of turnover on news staffs is the cantankerous boss who appears to have a doctoral degree from the University of Unpleasantness.  If one has such a boss, the wear and tear on your emotions can mount.

The Superman Complex

If you will recall in Part 3, that’s what I was described as having when I tried to make up the deficit of personnel I had in Jackson by doing the work of the people I did not have, in addition to my own job.  Another type of Superman Complex is addiction to the newsroom.  At least one or two in every shop, especially single people, seem to be perpetually in the building.  Often, that is at the expense of any degree of personal life.  They become so consumed by work that they have no diversions.  Keep that up long enough and even a young, energetic reporter can be worn down.

Insecurity

I well remember my former co-anchor Kathy Pepino telling me, “This is the most insecure business you can be in, but most people are in it because they love it.”  Yet, insecurity is increasingly surfacing with media chain consolidations.  Look at the number of general managers already being replaced by the Nexstar-Media General merger.  Never have I seen as many news practitioners, including many competent veterans who have invested in communities, accept buyouts or take retirements as in the past 18 months.  In many instances, these have nothing to do with the abilities of the journalists.  Their parent companies simply want to pay less money.  When one is in the midst of an “am I going to be next?” environment, enter insecurity.  If that hangs on for an extended period, you are a candidate for a mood swing.

Relationship or Marriage Stresses

At the 1984 RTNDA convention in San Antonio, I attended a session on television news stresses on marriages.  The late Dr. Joyce Brothers was a member of the panel.  So was a veteran news director who had become a general manager.  His marriage ultimately broke up because of his intense focus as a news manager.  In the audience were a few wives of active news directors.  One of them stood and poured out her heart to Dr. Brothers about her husband:  “What do I do when I’ve been home all day, the kids have been acting up, we have a plumbing problem and one of the kids has come down with bronchitis?  He comes home, I want to have his attention and he wants me to tell it all to him in a minute and a half.”  The room roared, in no small part because some of the news directors in that seminar suddenly saw themselves in the woman’s description.

A special person is necessary to be a journalist’s spouse.  Not only is the reporter, anchor, producer or videographer on call 24/7 for breaking news stories, the requests to emcee events or participate in charity activities or judge competitions mount—all in the name of community service and promoting the station’s brand.  When too many of those demands pile up, spouses or significant others can feel alone or abandoned.  Cracks in the ointment of a relationship are personal.  One’s emotional health can be in serious jeopardy.

Alcohol or Drugs

In a previous part of this series, I detailed what appeared to be frequent ill effects from alcohol excesses affecting a few members of my staff.  As it is, alcohol is a depressant.  Yet, I worked with people whose after hours passion was to hit a bar.  A few turned to drugs.  A combination of the two can be lethal.  We have sadly seen a string of on-air journalists show up on TV Spy or TV Newser, as well as their local newspapers, arrested on DUI charges.  In addition to career jeopardy and personal embarrassment, habitual drug or alcohol abuse can lead to self-induced depression.

Professional Danger and Risks

We are indeed living in an age where broadcast journalists are more at risk than in previous decades.  The murder on live morning television of Alison Parker and Adam Ward of WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., was a wake up call for the entire profession.  Yet, I am not certain that we still don’t have some corporate managements operating with the idea “that can’t happen here.”  Meteorologist Patrick Crawford was shot on the parking lot of KCEN in Waco-Temple.  San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot several times outside his home.  All of these were in 2015.

You cannot stop doing your job.  However, every journalist who goes out on a live shot has to be far more aware of his or her surroundings.  With some, that can lead to at least mild anxiety.  The relationship between anxiety and depression is closer than that of third cousins.

The laundry list could go on.  These are ten of the most significant elements that can be a trigger for depression for journalists.  Realistically, if one experiences up to four of these on a consistent basis, he or she could be a candidate for emotional struggles.

Twenty-six years ago when I had my first bout with depression, the only time this was discussed within a television newsroom was when a reporter was assigned a multi-part series (remember those?) on the subject.  People on news staffs who had the symptoms suffered in silence.  Gabriel Arana quoted a 16-year-old study that estimated up to 20 percent of journalists suffer from some form of depression during their careers.

Fortunately, the industry is doing a better job of responding to the problem.  A majority of employers in television news are now providing insurance coverage that includes visits for psychological counseling.  That was not true when I was still in the profession.  Since this blog series first appeared, I have been contacted by two journalists who told me their companies do not offer such coverage.

During the Orlando nightclub massacre last summer, at least two stations (and possibly others) brought in mental health counselors who were available for reporters and videographers who faced trauma or difficulty decompressing.  I have been told since then that stations in larger metropolitan markets exercise the same practice.  That is not necessarily true in the bottom 100 markets.

More news directors today are recognizing the need to provide reasonable down time for staff members when catastrophic coverage is required.  You can be a marathon man or woman but you have to realize a diminishing return mentally and emotionally once you go past 12 hours.  A fresh team is far more valuable than an exhausted one.

So what do I suggest are additional resources the industry should consider to help deal with potential emotional struggles that can lead to depression or related illnesses?   Consider these:

Keeping a certified psychologist on retainer

When a potential catastrophic event such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or mass violence breaks out, have an agreement where a counselor can come to the station to help the staff debrief and decompress.  In some instances, psychology faculty members from local universities could be utilized for little cost.  Some actually may offer themselves for community service that could be highly valuable support at tenure time.

Saturday seminars with a psychologist

Once and possibly twice a year, schedule a 60-to-120 minute session for the staff with a psychologist for a session of group therapy.  Sure, you’ll have your naysayers who scoff at it but they’ve probably been vaccinated with lemon juice.  No pressure and none of the kind of story analysis as employed when the news consultant comes for a visit.  I will wager a newsroom will function better mentally and emotionally with an opportunity to open up about tough days on the job with a counselor.  The staff will likely have a better road map to better cope with day-to-day challenges.

Making certain insurance coverage includes mental health visits

My university and many others offer five free visits to Pathways for counseling.  Some television stations offer similar plans but not all.  If employees know they can go in privacy for help, valuable preventive maintenance can be performed.  

Requiring managers, including news directors, to have training for mental health issues

If the research is true and 20 percent of journalists suffer from depression, the likelihood is that at least a few staff members will experience it.  At the very least, they could experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder if they have to cover violent crimes or catastrophic events.  Sensitivity was once considered a sign of weakness in the rough-and-tumble mental toughness world of television news.  In today’s culture, insensitivity or a callous attitude toward depression is a black mark on anyone in management in any profession.

In developing this blog series, the idea was not to suggest I have all the answers.  Far from it.  All I can do is reflect my own experience with an emotional illness that usually requires medication, counseling and patience in order to recover.  One does not need a PhD to determine that the highly-charged, multiple deadline-driven, stress-induced culture of television news makes its practitioners at least vulnerable for depression at some point.

My personal mission is twofold:  to be a catalyst to stamp out the stigma of depression and to help save lives.  The only way we can achieve those is to have an open dialogue.  Ken Barlow was willing to speak up and tell his story.  I can guarantee that because he is a popular public figure, his impact in being transparent has resulted in more people than he knows seeking help.  

I may no longer be a daily practitioner of journalism in a television station.  Regardless, I still care deeply about the profession and its journalists.  As a broadcast educator who has experienced the lows of depression both in and out of the industry, I am sending young people into the field.  I still encounter younger producers and reporters in person and online who seek career advice.  I tell them all to try to enjoy the journey, despite its pitfalls and struggles.

I close with a personal note to any journalist, either broadcast, print or digital.  You are in a rewarding and honorable but stressful profession.  Those stresses, if not managed well, can lead to symptoms of emotional illness or depression.  I hope you never face it.  However, if you are diagnosed, immediately seek help.  If you are prescribed medication, take it and take it all until your doctor says you can cycle off.  Remember, some people have to take medication for the rest of their lives to combat heart ailments.  What’s the difference?  Your heart and your emotions have a reasonably strong connection.  Finally, be patient with yourself.  Recovering from depression is no quick fix.  Listen to your counselor and follow his or her direction.  God gave us psychologists and psychiatrists as well as medical doctors because all are necessary to treat the whole person.  Don’t run from depression because you fear stigma from people who do not understand the illness.  Stigma usually results from ignorance.  You only have one you.

As I tell every group I address:  you can’t get well if you don’t get help.

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