Facing Systemic Barriers, Many Journalists Take Mental Health into Their Own Hands

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By Collette Watson, Venneikia Williams, Nyasia Almestica and Tianna Manon

Elizabeth Montgomery knows firsthand how stressful and demanding the journalism industry can be, especially for Black journalists who are underpaid and underrepresented.

As a reporter at The Arizona Republic, she endured systemic racism in the workplace and an unlivable wage, causing her mental health to deteriorate and prompting her eventual departure from the profession. She went on to work closely with Media 2070, an advocacy group fighting to transform the U.S. news industry.

A 2019 study found that 33 percent of journalists interviewed said they were suffering from moderate to severe depression. That number has likely risen even higher since the advent of the pandemic. Journalists of color are even more likely to struggle with their mental health, especially after generations of traumatizing reporting on police shootings, protests, and racial injustice. This BIPOC Mental Health Month, we’re shedding light on the hurdles journalists of color face in maintaining their mental health and well-being. 

Photo Credit: Samson Katt

Preserving Black mental health in the newsroom

As journalists of color navigate white power structures, they find themselves facing unique challenges in attempting to keep their mental health intact. As newsrooms continue to undertake historic layoffs, many feel pressured to withstand toxic news environments where unfair pay, abuse, and harassment are par for the course.

When it becomes too much, many leave the industry just as they are about to qualify for leadership roles — the types of roles that would empower them to change conditions. Carla Murphy’s 2020 survey, The Leavers, studied a sample of journalists of color, and results showed that 63 percent of respondents left the field of journalism due to workplace stress.

Under these conditions, leadership remains overwhelmingly white, and the journalism industry stays mired in toxic anti-Black practices that make it nearly impossible for Black journalists to thrive. 

Journalists should demand the care they need

Beyond the pressures of their field, journalists also experience the realities that make it hard for nearly everyone in Black communities to access mental health services. This includes difficulty finding therapists who understand their unique cultural backgrounds, lack of health insurance, and the cultural stigma associated with seeking treatment.

As a result, it’s important for journalists to demand the institutional care that media organizations owe us as a direct response to generations of exploitation — while also taking care into our own hands so we can continue telling important stories, fostering community connections, and building trust with our communities.

“You’ve got to move your body and release the stress weighing you down,” said Media 2070 Campaign Manager Venneikia Williams, one of the creators of Media 2070’s “Wellness Resource List.” The list includes a number of breathing techniques, readings, and even a playlist to help journalists de-stress from enduring the racism present in many newsrooms.

And the list isn’t just for journalists. Anyone facing stress and trauma can use these recommendations to slow down and find peace again. “We aim to cater to the distinct needs of underrepresented groups, which is why our list offers a diverse range of tools that are accessible and simple to use,” said Williams. “The list is organized into three key categories: slowing down, nourishing the body, and finding movement.”

Wellness resource list

  • Slowing Down: In hectic newsrooms with tight deadlines and the added strain of microaggressions that journalists of color experience, learning to slow down is important. The Nap Ministry is committed to genuine rest: incorporating naps into our daily schedule, daydreaming, and reviving the spirit through less work. You can read their curated reflections here.
  • Nourishing the body: There is an intimate connection between the mind and body, so nourishing the body with a nutritious diet is vital. However, with heavy workloads and packed schedules, journalists are often too exhausted to eat well. This resource list includes easy recipes to ensure they can prioritize their health. Another way to nourish your body? Increasing your water intake! 
  • Finding Movement: The daily work grind can easily prompt a disconnect from your body, so moving the body is critical to restoring that mind-body connection. Our resource list features yoga and even a Motherland Drip playlist, perfect for dancing your stress away. Delving into hobbies can be another way for journalists to get back into their bodies after a long day. 

Justice requires prioritizing Black mental health

“Media 2070 is working to realize the media that’s needed to finally realize Black liberation and reparations, and we know that intentionally caring for Black journalists is critical to that future,” said Collette Watson, project director of Media 2070. “We need Black journalists to be honored and supported so that the process of reporting and stewarding our truths to reality is sustainable. That means health, ease, rest, and even joy for the people holding those truths, our amazing Black journalists and media-makers.”

“We don’t get to rest enough in this country,” said Maya Ford, owner of FordMomentum!, who works with communities across the nation building equitable spaces. “I try to take a nap every single day and move at my pace, but it’s easy to get swept up by what everyone thinks is important, so that’s why I say know your values! Know what you want to do and focus on that. Keep in mind that real rest is a form of resistance; it’s a way of true economic power because it’s the only time we’re not actively contributing to a white capitalistic structure. When you’re bored watching TV, you’re still giving to advertisers; same with social media. So try to actively unplug.” 

“The work tends to be on people of color, and it’s exhausting,” said Marla Jones-Newman, vice president of people and culture at Mother Jones. “We wanted to show that it’s everyone’s work and that we would walk the talk so everyone has a goal. We did staff check-ins every six months to see where [people] were if they needed support and if we needed to tweak our approach. When you show people how they’re part of the mission, vision, and values, they get more engaged in the work.”

For journalists of color, reaching out for support can be challenging. However, tending to mental health is an active and transformative journey that requires constantly checking in to see how you feel and what you need and then being brave enough to radically give yourself that. Some days you’ll need to move; some days, you’ll need to nap; and others, you’ll need more water. You can strengthen your mind-body awareness through consistent practice — and in community and solidarity with your fellow journalists experiencing the same challenges and victories.

As we continue to fight against systemic barriers to justice and liberation, prioritizing mental health can be a lifesaver not only for Black journalists but for our entire community. There’s no justice in our future without health and strength across all Black journalism.

Collette Watson is the director of the Media 2070 project and the vice president of cultural strategy at Free Press. Venneikia Williams is the Media 2070 campaign manager. Nyasia Almestica is a junior publicist at Manon Media, an agency led by CEO Tianna Manon. 

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