Support for freelancers growing as industry vets address growing concerns

This article on freelancing, journalism and mental health is written by Becky Zimmer who is based in Humboldt, Saskatchewan. She has experience in farm, community, small business and sports reporting.

Support for freelancers growing as industry vets address growing concerns

We’re freelancers.

Some months we struggle to survive on coffee, sarcasm and rejection letters, while later making our entire year after two intense months of stress, interviews and writing on little sleep.

Any freelancer stuck in the pulls between financial insecurity, difficult subject matter and the stress and trauma of the job can understand how important their mental health is, but what can they do about addressing these issues?

Resilient, curious creatures can still need help

Speaking with Jane Hawkes, she wrapped it up in one succinct thought: “we’re resilient, curious creatures, but sometimes we need help.”

Whether reporting on heinous crimes, war and death, natural disasters, or facing the stress of working for ourselves, journalists are starting to take a stand: everyone deserves to seek and access help.

When Hawkes co-founded The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma with veteran reporter, Cliff Lonsdale, their focus was on the physical safety of journalists.

Now that discussions around mental health have become more commonplace, compared to 15 years ago, they have been able to take a different approach to treat the well-being of journalists as a hybrid issue of physical and physiological safety, she said.

People understand the risks and trauma of reporting from a war zone, but journalists at all levels face strains and stresses that need to be addressed.

We learned a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic, said Hawkes, when people were faced with numerous financial challenges with very little help available.

The Trauma Therapy Fund for freelance journalists in Canada is the brainchild of Dr. Anthony Feinstein, another Forum board member, but applications were a slow trickle when it was first announced, not the torrent that Hawkes was expecting. Speaking with freelance colleagues after the launch revealed there was some confusion on who the fund was designed for.

They said that (the fund) must be for people who cover war or conflict or do the really difficult stuff like very difficult court trials, etc. And I said nope…There’s no hierarchy in this. We take the view that journalism, at any level, can have an impact on you, especially when you also have the economic insecurity of being a freelancer.

There is no judgment on what people have been through, said Hawkes. Stories can accumulate, especially when a reporter doesn’t have the resources, time, or energy to deal with their mental health from one story to another. It doesn’t always have to be one big traumatic story that sends them to seek help.

Many people do nothing but cover negative stories. Separately, they may not have a huge impact, but over time, the drip, drip of it accumulates and you think I’m in trouble now because I’m not affected by this at all, what’s happening to me? Or, one more story and I can’t do this anymore.

For Dave Seglins, his own experiences at CBC has led him to create a trauma checklist, surveys and resources to help his colleagues in their worst moments.

While he was covering the story of Russell Williams, a Royal Canadian Air Force colonel who would eventually be found guilty of murder and sexual assault, his newsroom wasn’t very empathetic when he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he said. He eventually went back to work, but he didn’t fully understand what was going on with his mental health at the time.

“That experience in 2010 left me thinking a lot about the industry that we work in and how poorly we deal with people and how poorly we understand the potential risks of some of the things that we do report on,” said Seglins.

Working during the COVID-19 pandemic became another tipping point for Seglins.

Facing one difficult assignment on top of another, Seglins attempts to advocate for his own mental health were unsuccessful when he tried to say no to a historical murder case involving children. While he ended up reporting on the story anyway, the experience opened the door for a conversation about how journalists could be better supported in Canadian newsrooms.

They said this is the way it works, you don’t get to turn down an assignment. I said to them, actually, this is exactly how it works. I should feel safe enough to be able to put up my hand…I eventually came back to them and said let’s learn from this because we have to change this kind of approach.

Partnering with Matthew Pearson at Carleton University in Ottawa, Seglins created the Taking Care survey and webinar series to help journalists talk about their own mental health and what they need before, during, and after these stories are filed, or what they can do in times of stress or finding help.

After 25 years as an investigative and frontline reporter, Seglins says helping his colleagues as a “well-being champion” has been another joy of working as a journalist.

Join Hawkes and Seglin at the Canadian Freelancers Guild discussion on April 16 with the live webinar panel discussion, Stress and Trauma at Work: Let’s Have a Conversation.

Posted on April 9, 2024 at 6:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: 

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