Tom Hourigan

The journalist Tom Hourigan set up newsbreak at the start of 2021. Here, he explains why.

For more than a decade, I’ve been living with health anxiety – a condition that was unhelpfully dismissed in the past as hypochondria. At times, it’s been irritating; other times, it’s been completely debilitating.

I could write a book on how it’s affected me, but in a nutshell, this was the usual pattern of events for a long time:

  • I noticed something had changed in or on my body (a red mark, say, appeared on my neck)
  • I gave that mark a laser-like focus and tried to find out what was causing it
  • I spent hours and hours Googling the mark to establish what the worst-case scenario was
  • I’d freeze if I needed to cover that worst-case scenario in the news
  • When my issue didn’t go away, I sought medical help
  • I ended up going for tests I didn’t need
  • I was sick with worry about the results from those tests in case my worst fears came true
  • The tests usually came back negative, and I could breathe easy until another small change appeared and the cycle repeated itself

The low point was waiting for the results from one particular set of tests where something was found. I’d have bet you any sum of money that I’d be told I had cancer (I didn’t), and in anticipation of the grim outcome I was expecting, I was repeatedly sick and trying not to pass out in the reception of Charing Cross Hospital.

I couldn’t keep on living my life like that. I went through multiple rounds of therapy, then – in the autumn of 2019 – started taking medication. I’m now in control of my health anxiety, rather than it controlling me.

The timing of this change in treatment turned out to be pretty fortunate, as – just a few months later – almost every minute of my working day became consumed with the most serious health event the world has seen in a century.

Within a couple of weeks, thoughtful friends started enquiring: “how are you balancing your anxiety with all this coronavirus news?” I wrote about it here last March. Little did I know that this story would still be dominating my work life almost a year later.

Weirdly, I was worried about the virus itself and more concerned about what would happen if I was diagnosed with one of the serious diseases I’ve been concerned about in the past, and couldn’t get treatment because the NHS was (understandably) prioritising Covid care.

The bigger issue was fatigue. The volume of bad news my colleagues and I had to process and impart to a national audience was gigantic and unrelenting. I accept that it’s part of the job, but we as journalists had never lived through something like that and been expected to keep on top of it, just like we would any other story. I often came home completely exhausted, then stayed glued to Twitter for updates in my downtime. I wrote this during a week’s annual leave – a few days previously, I felt so dispirited about the news/ceaseless lockdowns/lack of things to look forward to/going back to work to cover further Covid crises, I didn’t get out of bed.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t share these concerns with colleagues in the newsroom (I was working for the BBC at the time). I was absolutely certain they’d listen, but I kept quiet. Similarly, I knew some of those colleagues were going through their own mental health difficulties. But they’re not talked about – and frankly it probably feels much easier for us all, when asked how we are, to reply with “OK”. It’s anything but.

It’s time we – as journalists – started having a frank, no-holds-barred conversation about our mental health and what we’re doing to manage it. I hope newsbreak can act as a platform for that conversation. I’ve been completely blown away by the response I’ve had since announcing I was setting this up, which goes to show that we really do need to talk about our wellbeing.

Importantly, I want newsbreak to be a resource for all journalists. Whether you’re in a staff job or freelance, still going into the office or working from home, at a national broadcaster or local paper, a veteran or still in training, I want to share your stories and – hopefully – give you useful information in the process.

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