Mental Health in the Lead

Photo courtesy of Kelsie Kilawna

Mental health and well-being have become a greater concern to journalists, while some have access to counselling and care, others are left in the dark

By Christi Walter

Kelsie Kilawna had to quit a story she was investigating because, for the first time in her life, she faced depression. 

“I was finding it was because I was digging into these deep, hard stories and not giving myself time to process it,” says Kilawna. Kilawna works for IndigiNews, an Indigenous-focused news outlet whose Okanagan chapter provides local news for the Sylix Okanagan nation, of which she is a member.

At the end of May 2021, the remains of 215 children were found on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, sparking a Canada-wide investigation and a devastating reckoning about colonialism and trauma in Indigenous communities. Kilawna says the discovery was an awful experience for several members of the team.

“Our mental health was challenged completely that month because we were reporting on things that directly impact our families,” she says. 

The past year was a traumatic one for many British Columbians. The province experienced a deadly summer heat dome, devastating wildfires and floods, as well as the remains discovery that struck a blow to the nation’s core. All this is on the back of a global pandemic. Journalists in B.C. are bearing witness to all of it.

It’s exactly what journalists are supposed to do. Being a witness to the world around them is an unofficial, yet highly treasured mandate. But who takes care of the witnesses?

In June 2020, a survey of 73 journalists from international news organizations, led by the Reuters Institute and the University of Toronto, found that 73 per cent of respondents who had worked on news stories directly related to the pandemic were suffering some level of psychological distress. 

Fifty-two per cent of those who were employed by established media companies had been offered access to some form of counselling. By contrast, freelance journalists and employees of smaller outlets are likely to have fewer readily available options. 

The pressures of journalism are not going unnoticed in Canada either. A new survey titled “The Taking Care Survey” was started in 2021 by Matthew Pearson, assistant professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism, and Dave Seglins, a veteran journalist, in partnership with the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. This survey aims to determine the viability of a career in journalism today. As of April 2022, the results had yet to be published. 

“People are desperate to find ways to make this job more sustainable, better, healthier for themselves,” Pearson said in a video on the Canadian Journalism Forum website.

 To care for her own mental health struggles, Kilawna went on a two-week vacation. As the cultural editor and “senior auntie” at IndigiNews, Kilawna says she takes pride in taking care of the rest of the staff by ensuring they get enough sleep and are taking time off to recharge.

When it comes time to care for herself, though, she credits the flexibility of her job, which allows her the option of taking a break when she truly needs it. She describes IndigiNews as a distinct newsroom in that they don’t track hours, and they view self-care as a component of work. 

“[Self-care] is still work. It still pours back into the work you’re doing,” she says. 

A new awareness about mental health and workplace culture may be forthcoming. Kilawna says IndigiNews has been coming into other newsrooms to speak about “decolonizing journalism” and advance ideas about finding a healthier work culture. 

Kilawna believes cutting down on practices like quotas for five stories a day would be a good start.

“When you’re fully available—you’ve eaten, you slept, you had a walk in the morning, you’re feeling grounded—those all go into showing honour and respect for your source, and also for yourself and for your news outlet,” she says, adding that exhaustion, burnout and poor mental health negate strong journalism. 

“When people are like, ‘I work so hard,’ I’m like, ‘Good for you, but that’s not a flex anymore,’” Kilawna says. 

As conversations about burnout in the workplace become more mainstream, it is only natural to reflect the same way in the journalism industry.

“We need good heart to tell the good stories,” Kilawna says.

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