Yin And Yang: The Pull and Push Relationship Between Mental Health and The Media


Mental illness

“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

— Kevin Carter, [Suicide letter]

Into The Badlands

Every job has an occupational hazard but that of journalism is a peculiar one. I remember being in one of the rooms in the University of Ibadan’s Faculty of Arts where ‘Fisayo Soyombo was delivering one of his numerous inspiring lectures. It was one we campus journalists at the University of Ibadan considered a huge privilege. 

Uncle Fissy, as some of us fondly call him, popped a question to the audience of campus journalists; he asked us what is the most powerful tool that a journalist has? After several attempts by the students, he said it is neither the camera nor the recorder but the eyes of the journalist. 

South African Photojournalist Kevin Carter
Photojournalist Kevin Carter in the field (Retrieved from Autocraticfor thepeople.com)

If a manual laborer works without protective gloves, he can develop calluses on his palm. Other than being unfit to become a masseuse or losing the social credit that comes with giving a soft handshake, the calluses don’t affect his general well-being so much. For a journalist, on the other hand, “calluses” in the eyes can have life-changing effects. This should be no surprise as the eyes are seen as a channel to the mind. Unfortunately, no eyeshades can protect journalists from these “calluses”. 

A Life Shelved Even With A Pulitzer Prize On The Shelf

These occupational calluses were the reality of Kevin Carter who took his life after winning a Pulitzer prize for a picture he took in Sudan of a girl tired from her walk to a UN aid camp in a plight to escape the impact of starvation. What added dramatic effect to this picture was the vulture hovering around the girl apparently waiting for her to give out so it could prey on the girl. The picture went viral and threw Carter into the limelight but the horror he had seen left a scar of gloom in his mind. 

The Little Girl and the Vulture
The award-winning picture (The little girl and the vulture) Photograph: Kevin Carter/Corbis Sygma

Another peculiar thing about journalism is the way it embodies the pain that comes with the game. While most jobs these days will lean towards ensuring improved welfare and overall convenience for their professionals, journalists don’t have that luxury. They have to consciously put themselves in uncomfortable situations and sometimes in harm’s way in the middle of armed conflicts or in forbidden territories in order to get the true story or to capture the picture from the perfect angle. While others might have the option to look away from the gory scene of the aftermath of the Ọ̀wọ̀ massacre, for example, it is the job of the journalist not to only watch but to analyze and verify the video. On such days, that’s probably tens or hundreds of playback of a horrific video. 

These experiences have tendencies to leave micro-traumas on journalists. As chronicled by American Press Institute, a lot of journalists have experienced Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) which shows that despite the tough skin that is recommended as a prerequisite for the job, journalists are still humans after all. 

The question however is, are there provisions that have been made to cater to the mental health of these professionals that are usually at the forefront of combating ills in our society? 

ALSO READ: Our Mental Health


While it has been established that mental disorders can have an impact on journalists by the virtue of their job, like a case of intertwined fate, media houses and journalists also have an influence on mental health matters. One of the ways this plays out is through inappropriate reportage. While there are guidelines such as WHO recommendations, as well as books that have also been written about the impact of media coverage of suicide cases, a lot of journalists do not follow these guidelines. 

It appears many journalists and media houses underestimate the pivotal role they play in the prevention of suicide through the proper use of language and shunning sensationalism.

Research has shown media can contribute to what is called copycat suicide. This happens when people with suicidal tendencies are exposed to graphical stories about suicide. When media houses include details such as the tool used for suicide or how it was done and such stories trend on the internet, they serve as an incentive for people that are already under mental distress to act out their suicidal thoughts . 

Conflict Resolution 

In a world where people die by suicide every 20 seconds, mental illness is part of the realities of our daily lives and when we consciously acknowledge this fact, our approach towards it changes. While the conversations around press freedom never die, it is also important that apart from physical threats, mental health threats are also elements that endanger journalists all around the world. This is why media outfits need to include counseling and psychological therapy in the welfare packages of their staff. This will serve as first aid for any journalist that is in mental distress. 

It is also important for journalists to acknowledge that everyone will reap massively when media houses portray cases of suicide as a symptom of mental illness and not a choice taken by the desperate. It also doesn’t fit into the box of criminality as it is erroneously depicted by the Nigerian constitution. Anyone looking for more helpful tips can find them here as shared by Asido Campus Network. 


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