In 2013, I received a phone call from a raspy-voiced reader who promised the "wrath of god" for an article I had written about same-sex marriage. Later that year, after a separate article on race and the media, my name was repeatedly mentioned in a scathing YouTube monologue by a guy the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a "white nationalist" and "hero to much of the radical right." The video was viewed more than 10,000 times and the comments section of my article was soon flooded with hateful commentary, some of it directed personally at me.
I share these events not because I think I've had an extraordinarily stressful career, by the journalism industry's standards. I'm not a war correspondent or full-time crime reporter. I didn't cover the 2016 Presidential race, which means I wasn't choked, or grabbed, or bombarded with death threats or anti-Semitism. I'm not a woman reporter who has to wade through unimaginable online abuse as a routine part of her job. I'm simply a journalist who, after about a decade in the business, recently took an honest look at the mental toll of the job.
For the last couple years, I had a sense that my growing psychological distress—waves of depression, anxiety, and hypochondria; a slow and steady loss of pleasure from my work; a creeping dread that settled over my life like a fog—might be related to the stresses of my work. Then this spring, while working on a particularly difficult magazine article and weathering a string of challenging events in my personal life, I tumbled into an intense depression.
I've taken to calling it a case of "burnout," because, unlike previously depressive episodes, this time I was physically unable to work. It felt like the parts of my brain that contain motivation, energy, and the ability to arrange ideas, had been injected with novocaine. I felt zombie-like. I was mentally exhausted, emotionally drained, and more cynical than I'd like to be.
The last few years have brought a mini-wave of journalists talking candidly about the effects of their work.
The last few years have brought a mini-wave of journalists talking candidly about the effects of their work. In 2014, Elle contributor Glynnis Macnicol wrote a piece that nails what it feels like to experience journalism-induced burnout. The following year, Huffington Post published a five-part series on mental health in the newsroom, the award-winning reporter Mac McLelland published a book about her experiences with PTSD following her coverage an earthquake in Haiti, and NPR's Gene Demby took a deep-dive on how it feels for black journalists to, as the headline reads, "report on black death." Compared to the overall output of the news media, these articles don't add up to a lot of noise. But a conversation is brewing.
Still, though, experts say that journalism is years behind other professions that deal regularly with trauma. University of Toronto psychology professor Anthony Feinstein, who has conducted research mental health of journalists around the world, from Mexico to Iran to Kenya to war correspondents, has said in a report that before he began exploring the subject in the late 1990s, he did a "thorough computer search of all the medical and psychological literature [and] failed to find a single article devoted to this subject."