Pulitzer Prize winner discusses mental health concerns and resources for journalists during ISOJ lunch workshop

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Mar Cabra addressed widespread mental health issues faced by journalists, speaking at the 24th annual International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) about the rising rates of anxiety and depression now found amongst media professionals after the pandemic.

“The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) did a research on the effect of the pandemic on journalists and one of the top issues that was being cited as a one of the top challenges that journalists were facing was challenges to their mental health,” Cabra said. “We have seen data coming [from] country after country after country showing the same reality which is how our mental health is being challenged at a record level.”

Cabra is the founder of The Self Investigation, a foundation aimed at providing mental health services and resources for journalists globally. She led a lunch workshop at ISOJ called “How to operationalize mental health and wellbeing in the newsroom.”

“The good news about all this is that we’re finally starting to break the stigma around mental health in journalism,” she said. “But the data is showing a very dark reality.”

The issue reaches past North America — journalists in places where freedom of press and information isn’t guaranteed face even higher rates of anxiety.

“If we look at reports coming from countries as varied as Canada, Ecuador or Spain with very different access to information, freedom of information, freedom of the press home situations, the data points show at least 60% of media workers in those countries reported high levels of anxiety,” Cabra said.

As concerns of mental health in the newsroom come into the limelight, Cabra is not the only journalist talking about these issues. In September 2022, Ed Yong, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his in-depth coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, spoke out about his struggles with mental health and his decision to take a sabbatical. Yong’s experience echoes Cabra’s and many other journalists, she said.

“These past three years have been the most professionally meaningful of my life, but they’ve also deeply broken me,” Yong said in a tweet. “The pandemic isn’t over, but after a long time spent staring into the sun, I need to blink.”

High-stress careers

Cabra, who led the team of journalists on the release and investigation of The Panama Papers, said she faced burnout herself after years of working on high stress inducing stories.

“It was supposed to be the top time of my career, I was at the highest level of my career. It was one of the lowest times as well,” Cabra said. “I had been working nonstop 16 hour days, sometimes for many, many years. I was accumulating stress, too much stress for too long.”

The Self Investigation program aims to provide pre-emptive resources that address the root cause of journalists’ mental health issues, instead of reactionary methods. This way reporters and media professionals can help before they get to the point of total burnout.

“When I stopped to realize that I had all the signs of burnout, I had already burnt out,” Cabra said. “What were those signs that I had missed and that I have not attended to and that’s probably why I had to end up putting a pause on my career. Well, I was physically and mentally exhausted for a very long time.”

However, despite the rising rates of anxiety and depression, there are many ways to implement programs and systems in newsrooms that can combat burnout and high stress, according to Cabra.

“We would need to have multi-layered organizational support training programs and of course, transparency and communication,” she said. “The real revolution for mental health betting starting right now in journalism to me has to do with how we integrate well being a mental health our core values in the way we practice.”