How therapy helped journalists with anxiety, depression: study

First such study based on 3 years of counselling service
Sep 23, 2021
The free counselling service can be contacted at 03492002567. Image: CEJ
The free counselling service can be contacted at 03492002567. Image: CEJ

The IBA’s Centre of Excellence in Journalism launched its study ‘Stress and Coping in Journalists: Findings of a three-year counselling service’ on Wednesday, Sept 22, 2021 in Karachi. The study’s author Dr Asha Bedar and CEJ Director Kamal Siddiqi held a 20-minute Facebook Live session at 3pm to introduce the work. Dr Asha Bedar is a Clinical Psychologist with a PhD from the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has over 18 years of experience in the field.

“This issue is not going anywhere,” said Kamal Siddiqi. “I think the challenges are mounting for journalists. The pressures are mounting. The stresses are mounting. It has nothing to do with young or old, or your medium of work… In our profession, when people reach breaking point they ask for help. I think it’s time we started looking at signs, whether in our selves or colleagues so we can get help prior to that.”  

The free confidential counselling service for media workers was launched in 2018 in collaboration with DW Akademie. Its four clinical psychologists—Dr Asha Bedar, Mahnoor Shaikh, Tabinda Afzal and Zainab Barry—have provided over 600 hourly counselling sessions to 107 journalists across Pakistan, with the majority in Karachi (90). This study brings together insights from the journalist clients, data from surveys after wellbeing workshops and multiple interviews with newsroom managers.

“We wanted to provide a snapshot, a real understanding [of the impact on their work and on them individually],” said Dr Asha, referring to the stressors journalists faced.  

Here are some of the findings: 

  • The majority of journalists tended to come for 2 to 7 sessions
  • The biggest group was in the 21-30 year age bracket
  • Half of the journalists from Karachi were diagnosed with anxiety
  • More men sought counselling than women
  • After factoring in overlap, a majority of clients were working in digital or online capacities
  • An overwhelming majority of journalist clients were working full-time
  • 37 out of the 90 journalists in Karachi who came for varying degrees of counselling at the Wellbeing Centre had been on the job from one to five years
  • Subditors, reporters and newsroom managers sought help mostly, but so did anchors

The counselling service was confidential and one of the challenges of the study was to maintain that especially given how mental health is not a regulated industry in Pakistan. Establishing trust was a major part of running this service successfully, said Dr Asha Bedar. A lot of thought went into ensuring it; for example, managing the clinic’s space so that journalists would not bump into each other while coming and going for appointments.

Dr Asha recalled how she would take a few sessions with journalist clients to establish trust. She understood that just because she had a degree did not mean someone who was struggling would automatically trust her. “I remember in the beginning clients would say, If this gets out, I will lose my job,” she said. The news industry works on information sharing, that is why it was harder for journalists to perhaps trust. “Some journalists who came were actually very open, and they went back and told people at work,” she recalled. This created problems for them because receiving therapy is still taboo.  

“We did have a lot of people come in because word of mouth really matters. We were sometimes booked up months in advance. It was very well received which indicates that there was such a need for this [service] and if you did it properly, ethically, with professional standards you can actually run it well.”

Kamal Siddiqi asked if Dr Asha felt that journalism as a profession had a higher need for counselling. “It is certainly one of the professions,” she responded, “but anyone exposed to stress, trauma and people’s misery… And a lot of journalism is about that. One of the things that stood out was how much of the work you all do is to do with sad, difficult and stressful things that are happening in people’s lives.” The additional constant exposure of social media means that it is even harder to switch off for journalists.

When that stress becomes complex and depressive symptoms start to surface… there is so much helplessness, it takes a toll

All journalists are used to and expect some levels of stress at the job. “When that stress becomes complex and depressive symptoms start to surface… there is so much helplessness, it takes a toll,” she said, while going into detail on the impact work had on journalists. “Some people who were coming to therapy were not able to function, not able to cope at all.” People realised they needed help when they were in a crisis or they feared they would lose their jobs. “But up until the realisation, they keep taking a whole lot of stress.” In the meantime, they faced depression, conflict with family. Dr Asha felt that the study was so important because she believes people should not reach that point before they seek help.

The study has an entire section dedicated to how therapy actually helped clients and their stories. 

Kamal Siddiqi thanked Dr Asha for her service to the community of journalists, and the other psychologists who are part of the team. 

The video recording of the FB live session is available here:
You can find the video on YouTube as well:
The graphs from the study are available here:

Follow the CEJ on Twitter: @CEJatIBA

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