This year has been my fourth time attending the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Each time, when I returned home I could pick one or two topics that defined that particular year for me (I bet it is different topics for various attendees).

This time it was war in Ukraine and mental health. And the two unexpectedly collided.

I’m not going to go deep on all the lessons learned in Perugia this year, the Reuters Institute did a very good job summarizing all of that in one of their blogs (and you can watch all the talks with The Fix team here).

Rather, I want to focus on the debates and discussions on mental health and talks during the Journalism Festival that highlighted how big of a topic this should be for any newsroom and especially those in European countries where most of the refugees from Ukraine are fleeing.

Before the war in Ukraine

In recent years, demand for mental health apps has skyrocketed. Social media anxiety, work from home, and before the war in Ukraine, it was mainly the pandemic that triggered this trend. 

The constant stay at home, the long work hours, financial insecurity, and few social interactions meant a high demand for mental health support, and not USA nor Europe were ready.

Corporate wellness programs are not new, they have been around for more than 70 years. NY Times wrote that a 2010 Harvard study found that there’s a 6-to-1 return on investment: For every dollar spent on employee wellness, medical costs fall $3.27; costs associated with absenteeism drop a few dollars as well.

That’s where mental health apps such as Calm, Headspace, Fabulous, Rootd and Liberate come in. For a monthly subscription, you can access meditations, and courses on how to sleep better or reduce stress. Some corporations are giving employees free access to these apps.

In the U.S., teenagers are experiencing an extreme mental-health crisis. According to The Atlantic, during the pandemic years, the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded. The main reasons: social media use, lockdowns, fears about finances, climate change, viral pandemics (plus, now the war in Ukraine), and increasing parental pressure.

During the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I had several conversations with fellow journalists from all over Europe and surprisingly, mental health came up repeatedly. Some newsrooms proactively offered staff mental health checkups but it’s far from widespread.

Hannah Storm, the former director of the International News Safety Institute and the Ethical Journalism Network, and John Crowley, an editor, trainer, and consultant with 20 years of journalistic experience managing newsrooms (including The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The Irish Post), founded Headlines Network, a network for those who care about improving mental health in the media. 

Their pitch is simple: both are journalists, both worked in newsrooms, and know the environments are often ill-suited to supporting journalists’ wellbeing.

As with many problems in the industry, the first step is education and letting the newsroom leaders know how can they deal with such problems. Headlines Network has recently launched a suite of resources for journalists in an industry-first initiative.

The first two guides – Managing Our Mental Health and Supporting Our Colleagues are available for free to download on their website. Both were launched at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

After the war in Ukraine

The Financial Times wrote recently about the mental health crisis that lies ahead for Ukrainians ravaged by war. There are not enough psychologists and they too are under tremendous stress. 

FT points out the idea of neighbourhood discussion groups by Neil Greenberg, professor of defence mental health at King’s College London, who specialises in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that could work in long term but also stresses help from other countries will be needed.

Neighbourhood discussion groups could be facilitated by a volunteer who, with the right training, could be better than a mental health professional as he or she better understands the local context.

PTSD was mentioned several times also by Daryna Shevchenko during her talks at the International Journalism Festival.

“Many people will have PTSD after the war and everyone will have to live through that trauma while rebuilding a country that has been largely destroyed by the Russian army. But I just hope that while we do that, you guys in the global press keep talking about it,” she said at a panel.

Neighboring countries or those that are the final destinations for millions of Ukrainian refugees (almost 5 million at the time of writing this) have all reported the same: mental health is the most often reported medical problem. 

Another topic worth keeping in mind is a psychological phenomenon known as generational trauma

NBC News published a long piece looking at the World War II survivors and how the experience affected other generations, with consequences extending beyond mental health. One of the effects is a detached parenting style which could cause an inability to teach children how to regulate their emotions.

What does it mean for journalism and what can journalists do better 

Looking at the reporting done in the Central Europe region, too often the mental health aspect of the war in Ukraine is settled by a single story and the news outlets have moved on from the topic.

Of course, there are exceptions, mainly led by newsroom leaders who have experienced mental health issues themselves and better understand what’s going on.

That brings us back to the need for education and a better understanding of how to approach mental health in newsrooms both in terms of support for journalists and also how reporting is done.

There are already good resources out there like the tips for reporters and their managers from Hannah Storm, put together in this piece published by the Reuters Institute soon after the war broke out.

Of course, there is no rule of thumb regarding how many stories should be dedicated to mental health. Still, I think we can agree that if you published one or two during the almost two months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started that is not enough.

Photo by Christophe Hautier on Unsplash