A place for journalists to discuss their mental health

The switch-off struggle

Since setting up newsbreak in January 2021, journalists have raised one issue with us more than any other: their struggle to switch off from the news when they’re not at work – a problem which has intensified in light of developments in Ukraine. In this article, we explore that struggle – and look at ways to deal with it.

What’s going on?

There are, frankly, endless reasons why journalists find it hard to turn off their brains once they’ve finished their shift. You’ve shared a few of them with us:

“I get home, and I don’t have anything else to do, so I sit on the sofa with my phone and keep doomscrolling until it’s time for bed”

“I feel like I have no choice. I’ve been on the story all day, and need to keep following it”

“Stories are moving so quickly, I worry that if I don’t follow them in my downtime, I won’t be fully up-to-speed when I’m back at work tomorrow”

Many journalists are also going through the same thing. An (admittedly small) survey carried out by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in June 2020 found that of 73 journalists questioned:

  • 70% were suffering from some kind of psychological distress
  • 26% had “clinically significant” anxiety – including symptoms of worry and feeling on edge

Nearly two years later, it’s likely that these symptoms have intensified for many people – and the number of journalists dealing with them has risen.

Breaking the cycle

We asked journalists and mental health experts how they cut back on doomscrolling and reclaimed time outside work.

Apps and phone use

If scrolling Twitter or receiving news app notifications is making you anxious, and you’re an iPhone user, turn them off at certain points of the day using Apple’s “Do Not Disturb” function – which has its own scheduler. You can also manage different types of notifications – and change when they appear – by following these instructions.

If you have an Android phone, here’s how you changeDo Not Disturb” settings.

If you still have the urge to scroll through apps, and can’t put your phone down, try downloading Flora (free for iOS) or Forest (free for Android). Both work in a similar way – you set a time you want to spend away from your phone, then you put it down and the apps plant a digital tree. If you leave your phone alone, the tree grows and blossoms – but pick it up again before the clock runs out, and the tree dies.

It sounds dramatic, but it’s surprisingly compelling and can help change your habits in a relatively short space of time – and if you upgrade to the paid version (Forest costs £1.99 on iOS, for instance) they will plant a real tree on your behalf.

Rebecca, who works in BBC local radio, got in touch to say she removed the news apps from her phone once a week:

And one senior journalist told us they replaced their phone for more than a year:

“I reverted to a brick. Phone calls, text messages only. I allowed myself to get bored and used my imagination. Am sure I rediscovered my creativity in my job as a result. Surely I missed so much information without apps? Hardly at all. Led editorial meeting after editorial meeting for 18 months and never felt unprepared.”

Like mental health itself, there’s no single solution for everyone – but finding a way of reducing your screen time at home that works for you can be an important step in reducing anxiety and worry.

Taking a break

The risk of relentlessly following the news at home is that journalists become so overloaded with information, it may feed into a cycle of stress and make burnout more likely.

That’s why mental health practitioners believe it’s vital – now more than ever – that we take a break from the news cycle and do things that make us happy as often as we can.

In her recent blog, Emily told us that she’d recently rediscovered her love of cooking, while Laura spends time in a “cosy corner” she set up in her new flat. Just like exercise is beneficial for mental wellbeing (because it releases endorphins that trigger positive feelings in the body), so too are hobbies – they delight, they distract and they diminish negative thoughts.

In this video for newsbreak, Dr Radha Modgil – a GP and broadcaster who specialises in wellbeing – explains why it’s vital to give our minds a rest:

Talking about it

Making changes to phone use habits can be very challenging, and the process will be different for everyone – but journalists can help themselves by having a conversation about this with their loved ones.

Sometimes we use the excuse of “being a journalist” to spend the evening scrolling through news apps and Twitter, and the people around us may never have thought to question it if they’re unaware it makes us unhappy.

Sophie, who got in touch with newsbreak to say she read books as an alternative to browsing social media, pointed out she didn’t want her children to see her glued to a screen:

But there are no right or wrong approaches – some journalists may be unaffected by a level of news consumption at home that leaves others extremely anxious. Changing that consumption has to be right for you, and if you need help, you might like to contact Our Frontline – a charity which supports the mental health of key workers (including journalists).

How are you managing to switch off? What tips do you have to combat doomscrolling? We’d love to hear from you – drop us a message.