How journalists can protect their mental health before, during, and after assignments
Many journalists become eyewitnesses to disasters, human suffering, or other violent events at some point in their careers. Stress and psychological trauma are major occupational risks for journalists. However, if given the right tools and knowledge, media professionals can significantly build resilience and reduce the psychological toll of their work.
In order to equip media practitioners and human rights defenders with the means to safely remain in their profession, IREX’s Securing Access to Free Expression (SAFE) initiative addresses safety through the lenses of digital identity, physical awareness, and psychosocial care by providing trainings in Central America, Eurasia, East Africa, and the Middle East & North Africa.
Here are tips from SAFE’s integrated safety trainings that can help local and international journalists build resilience and improve their psychosocial well-being.
Psychosocial self-care should by no means be limited to the time immediately before, during, or after a potentially stressful and emotionally exhausting assignment. Rather, it should become part of journalists’ and human rights defenders’ daily routine.
Practice self-care on a daily basis. Try meditating, doing yoga, or using other stress-management exercises. Creating a “safe space” in your mind allows you to escape and find relaxation in moments of intense stress and exhaustion.
Simple habits, such as writing down things you feel grateful for in a gratitude journal, can help you recalibrate your brain chemistry and get rid of excess stress hormones. Rather than wasting your energy by worrying about things that are out of your control, identify and save your strength for things that are under your control.
Maintain a healthy work–life balance and dedicate time to tending to your support network of family and friends. Make time for hobbies and other activities that you enjoy, since they can serve as positive coping mechanisms. Avoid quick “fixes” that harm you in the long run, such as alcohol and drugs.
Before an assignment
Before embarking on an assignment, be mindful of your basic needs, such as getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating a healthful diet. This is all the more important if you don’t know how long the assignment will last.
Before leaving, take care of all personal matters, to the extent possible. This will help you focus more clearly on the task at hand and reduce further anxiety or stress while in the field.
Practice saying “no” and setting proper expectations with your supervisors and your team. Being on the same page and knowing exactly what is expected of you will mitigate stress.
Be self-aware and have a clear understanding of where you personally stand with your attitudes, triggers, strengths, and weaknesses regarding your assignment. Map out the actors you are likely to encounter, and make yourself aware of potential prejudices and preconceptions you might have about the people you are about to engage with.
During an assignment
While on an assignment, take care of your physical well-being first. Always carry enough drinking water to stay hydrated and “cool down” in moments of extreme stress, high adrenaline, and anxiety.
Recognize that feelings of fear, anger, emotional numbing, and altered body sensations are perfectly normal. All people feel them when under stress. Remember that your body and mind are in survival mode when on an assignment. That means that whatever decisions your mind or body make for your safety are reasonable responses to external circumstances.
Trust your body, soul, and your “gut feeling.” There is no reason to prove something to yourself or others, or to feel guilty or ashamed.
After an assignment
After an assignment, manage and dedicate time to your psychosocial well-being, and address stress, burnout, and trauma you might have experienced from the assignment. Be aware that not feeling “normal” after a stressful or traumatic experience is perfectly normal.
Pay particular attention to talking about your experiences. Allow yourself to vent your emotions—for instance, by discussing your experience with friends and colleagues, or by writing in your diary. If you need further support, seek professional help.
Learn more about psychosocial self-care for journalists: