The physical toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is widely known, but what is the toll on mental health — and how can journalists better cover it?
Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Zamo Mbele, a practicing psychotherapist at Tara H. Moross Hospital and at the WITS Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, shared the impacts they are seeing and their recommendations.
Here are key quotes from the discussion:
On what we do and don't know about the impact of the pandemic
Many of the mental health impacts of the pandemic are unknown at this point. "I think it will be a long time until we get to know so much more," Mbele said. "We know that it's having a huge impact, and will continue, on everybody... We will be maybe even frightened or overwhelmed by the impact of it on people's mental health at the most acute level."
Some surveys have been conducted asking people whether they are stressed or anxious, Gold said, but they have not been academically rigorous. "If we were pushing data out right now, it would be bad data," she said. "[But] we do know people are distressed, that [the pandemic] is affecting different populations, different states, and different cities differently, as well as how it disproportionately affects specific groups, how it's affecting frontline workers, how it all affects people with preexisting mental health conditions."
On how countries are being hit differently
Mbele pointed out that South Africa, which he said is approaching 1,000 COVID-19 cases nationally, can learn from looking at what has happened in the United States, where the virus took hold sooner. "In South Africa, without getting into the statistics, we were quite a bit behind it all... it's so helpful to kind of look into the future and anticipate the fatigue that people feel, to also anticipate how persons who make use of psychiatric services in particular, where we need to be supporting them."
On how journalists can report responsibly on mental health during the pandemic
"We are asking journalists to create a narrative where, in fact, there is no narrative. It's something very difficult to engineer, impossible to narrate. How do you kind of create a linear something or sequential something, and when it's so new and it's so fluid?" Mbele said. "And I think that that's the first place to begin around, which is the responsibilities, the awareness that there's a lot going on that may not fit in the regularity of how to report, what to say and what to do in a huge way."
Gold suggested that journalists cover some of the ways people are coping successfully. "If you could just think about the nuances and try to think about how we can prevent it. How can experts talk about this? How can we talk about treatment? How can we talk about ways that mental health can be used as a way to bring people together? How can communities support each other through this time? And think of ways that other people are being left out of the conversation. I do think that the story will be more robust and that's the stuff that I think is missing when you just report on these sort of huge stories that feel really intense."
She also offered tips for covering mental illness. It's important to evaluate whether a person's mental illness is relevant to include in a story, and if it is, to ensure that the person has a diagnosis, she said. Stay away from labels and negative language that further stigmatize people with mental illnesses by focusing on positives such as treatment and prevention.
On how journalists can cover complexities of people who are dealing with multiple traumas at once
The unjust killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans, along with the protests that followed, have seized headlines in the U.S. and elsewhere, and compounded despair for many people already grappling with the pandemic.
Mbele began by saying news of the anti-police protests is far-reaching: "The U.S. is so big that when it sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold." He also said that the issues regarding race strike a nerve particularly for South Africa due to its history and traumas. "I think the responses that we are seeing are also a result of the pandemic and the crisis. I think that there is something about a frustration, about an enragement, of powerlessness and hopelessness that is also adding, in fact, to the current response... and in other ways there is something that feels good about coming together, even though it's painful still, showing solidarity and the reminder that there is a collective that is existing still and that will exist past this pandemic."
Consider some of the same questions that mental health providers ask, Gold suggested. "When we think about mental health, we always think about all of the factors that come into it. So we always think about mental health as the biopsychosocial model of things. So how does someone's biology, psychology and social factors influence someone?"
Amplify the voices of those affected by these issues. For example, interview black mental health experts when talking about race, mental health and the pandemic as a whole. During the interview, be "aware that they also have their own mental health struggles with the current moment and [be] mindful of the different things that they're being asked to do at this moment."
On how journalists can cover issues that may affect them, as well as others, deeply
"I, probably until this pandemic, didn't realize how much journalists are like psychotherapists, until I started watching the news and realizing how much you guys interview people who have been through just really hard stuff. And you do it in front of people, which just scares me. I wouldn't want to do my job in front of people watching," Gold said. "What you're listening to is not the kind of stuff that most people share with anyone. I think you have to say that out loud and you have to acknowledge that. It's not normal for people to talk about people that died, about the really hard things that happened to them, about war, and it's not normal for you to just hear that over and over and over and not have a reaction. But after work you have to process that, because if you don't, it will start to eat at you." Gold suggested finding ways to then cope such as mindfulness, meditation, reading, journaling or figuring out if therapy is needed.
Mbele added that going into a story, understanding that a situation or an interview about a particular topic may be traumatic, "is quite important for the work that could potentially be done by all of our media. Journalists will not just be empowered in doing their jobs but will almost insulate or recruit a resilience internally. One of the things that I've spoken about during this time to everybody is the importance of a symmetrical response. So when we find ourselves in a once in a lifetime global crisis, we can imagine that the pressure and the distress that comes on, it is immense, and I think that we need a symmetrical response in terms of self care."