Mental Health in times of crisis

By Nancy Agutu

A top psychiatrist has offered to work with media institutions to help solve mental health challenges among journalists. “I am willing to provide support and to link up KEG with the relevant institutions to see what can possibly be done,” said Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Moi University Lukoye Atwoli.

He spoke at a KEG virtual training forum organised against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made in-person meetings challenging to convene, and also offered to partner with the Guild to design support programmes for mental health.

Addressing the question of costs, he advised that one need not spend so much money to access mental health services in the country. “You can dial 1199 and speak to a mental health worker who will offer support to you. I know they might have hiccups but they are good and can be used by many,” he said.

Responding to participants’ questions, the professor spoke of tell-tale signs of a mental breakdown. “Those who are about to have a breakdown,” he said, “tend to withdraw from friends, their sleeping patterns change and you find them taking too much coffee and chamomile tea among other beverages.”

And if you are a journalist who needs coffee to do assignments, then you are ‘postponing’ stress, he cautioned, adding: “Coffee has chemicals that act on different parts of your brain to make you feel different. If you are taking it because of stress, then you are misusing the drink. It will only delay what you are feeling for a while.”

Acknowledging that media work was highly stressful and, therefore, a likely cause of mental illness, he advised: “If you find yourself taking more than 14 cups a day, you need to seek help.”

He spoke of the need for a support system for journalists when dealing with mental health issues and advised media organisations to organise sessions at which editors and senior journalists could brief their younger colleagues on what to do when covering traumatising assignments.

Among his other suggestions were:

  • the formation of a buddy system where peers could reach out to each other and share their experiences;
  • organising debriefing sessions “because journalists are the ones who are exposed to these stressors more than any other person”;
  • convening meetings outside work where journalists could tell their managers how they were faring.

“Talk about how a person is doing. Try and separate your identity from your job. This aids in good preparation against any traumatic experiences,” said Professor Atwoli.

Media houses could also have in their newsrooms what he referred to as trauma programmes particularly targeted at journalists covering assignments such as war or situations likely to result in deaths.

“If your media does not have this, it is time to set up one urgently. You need an avenue for your workers to unwind and relieve stress,” he said, noting that people should seek reasons to be happy, visualise success while keeping an eye on greater goals, keep strong family ties, a good circle of friends, a good working environment, and frequent laughter while giving oneself time to play games and relax.