How Editors Can Support Writers with Mental Health Conditions

 

Carrie Arnold stopped eating again in the summer of 2018. An eating disorder that began in college had come roaring back. Unable to work, Arnold, a freelancer who also has depression and anxiety, faced not only a life-threatening condition but also a backlog of incomplete assignments.

She worried about how much to reveal to her editors: Should she share something so personal? Would she be judged? “I was having a hard time deciding what to tell editors—how much information to give them,” she recalls. “I was in really bad shape physically and mentally.” In the end, she only confided in one of them—an editor she had worked with for six years whom she knew she could trust. The others only knew she was dealing with a medical issue.

To her relief, all of Arnold’s editors were understanding, and they were happy to give her extra time to finish her assignments. She was able to focus on her recovery, a difficult process that took several months, without having to worry about fraying relationships with clients. “I was blown away by how kind and gracious everyone was about deadlines,” Arnold says. “It was just, ‘How are things going? How are you feeling?’”

While Arnold was fortunate to have sympathetic editors, her initial fears seem to be warranted. Some writers interviewed for this story (a few of whom requested anonymity) shared stories of editors failing to take their condition seriously, judging the illness as a weakness, or rejecting requests for accommodations such as extended deadlines or working from home. That’s why writers experiencing mental health conditions—from trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to depression and anxiety—may avoid disclosing their conditions to editors. They fear losing an assignment or even their job.

This lack of support and understanding about mental health issues within the journalism community reflects a persistent stigma in society. Though awareness has risen in recent years, “sadly, there’s still [a] taboo around mental health,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health and a former director of advocacy at the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

Compounding the problem, most editors receive little, if any, training in how to recognize the signs of mental health conditions or how best to respond to a writer who discloses having one. Even the most understanding editors may struggle with what to say. Or they may find themselves caught between wanting to be supportive and being worried about filling the hole left by an assignment suddenly in limbo.

“I think there’s a need for better education,” says Lauren Morello, Politico’s deputy health care editor. “I think a lot of times it’s like, ‘Congratulations, you’re an editor.’ And there are situations you’re supposed to magically know how to deal with. I feel like for a lot of editors there’s really not a road map.”

Insufficient training can leave editors unprepared for handling mental health issues that surface in the workplace, either with staffers or freelancers. But there’s much that editors and managers can do to foster an environment of safety and support, say many who have first-hand experience with these challenges. And taking a proactive approach is especially important now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to cause or exacerbate mental health issues for so many.

First off, editors can work to create a culture of openness and empathy when it comes to mental health. They can learn how to recognize the signs of common mental health conditions and how to reach out when a writer seems to be struggling. And when these situations arise, editors should be ready to offer accommodations tailored to a writer’s specific needs.

 

Learning the Signs

Ideally, even before a writer speaks up about a mental health issue, editors and managers have educated themselves and their teams on how to handle such situations. Creating a culture that prioritizes mental health and encourages people to speak up when they’re struggling can prevent problems later. When onboarding a new hire or assigning a story to a freelancer, for example, editors can let writers know that it’s okay to come forward if a mental health issue affects their work and that accommodations are available if and when they’re needed.

In creating this culture of support, it’s helpful for editors to remind writers that they aren’t alone. Editors themselves may experience mental health issues and are likely to be more understanding than a writer assumes, says Morello, who has had several writers disclose mental health conditions to her over the years. After all, “I think most editors are good people,” she says. “I don’t think it’s so fraught as some people think it is.”

Editors should learn to recognize signs that a writer may be struggling, so that they can step in early on, Gruttadaro says. “They should certainly know basic information about mental health conditions, the early warning signs of common conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD,” she says. “And they should know how to start a conversation with someone they’re concerned about, because it may interfere with performance.”

 

Knowing the signs of common mental health conditions can also help editors avoid confusing mental health issues with performance issues.

 

Someone with anxiety, for example, might exhibit distress, restlessness, and irritability, and may have physical symptoms, too: tremors, fatigue, shortness of breath. Editors can learn the warning signs of anxiety and other common mental health conditions on the website of The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The site also lists a number of resources for people who need help, including a hotline and local NAMI chapters.

Writers need editors watching out for these signs now more than ever: According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in mid-July, 53 percent of adults in the U.S. reported that stress and worry over COVID-19 has negatively affected their mental health. On top of dealing with those same concerns, science journalists also take on the emotional toll and physical risks of covering the pandemic.

Global health crises aside, journalism has never been a low-stress profession: Budget cuts and layoffs, pressure to churn out multiple stories a day, and the grind of the 24/7 news cycle can all contribute to stress, which can be a precursor to mental health conditions. “The news business … isn’t exactly structured to maintain good mental health,” says Lisa de Bode, a freelancer and former editor at PRI’s The World. “The mentality of just sucking it up is still very much there. But it’s improving.”

Knowing the signs of common mental health conditions can also help editors avoid confusing mental health issues with performance issues. A trail of missed deadlines, for example, could be due to a lack of reliability or being overworked, but it could also stem from a depressive episode or other mental health concerns. It’s crucial to initiate a conversation before making assumptions, Gruttadaro says.

 

Reaching Out

When editors do sense that something’s up, reaching out is key to helping writers get the support they need. That conversation should begin with empathy, Gruttadaro says. An expression of concern creates a sense of safety and encourages people to disclose what’s going on.

 

Asking questions [about needed accommodations] zeroes in on specific supports and helps writers feel comfortable and safe enough to answer honestly.

 

Smithsonian assistant science editor Rachael Lallensack, who has anxiety and depression, experienced just such a response from her editors when she was an intern at Nature in 2017. When she arrived at work late and visibly upset one day, Lallensack recalls, her editors, Lauren Morello (now at Politico) and Jane Lee, took her aside.

“We sat her down and asked her what was going on,” Morello says. “I asked, ‘How are you doing?’ and just sort of talked her through things.” Lallensack told her about her conditions, and that there was a problem with her medication. To Lallensack’s relief, Morello and Lee listened without judgement. They discussed what kind of support she needed: Did she want to go home for the day? Was it better to stay? The support she received from Morello and Lee gave her the peace of mind she needed to tend to her mental health, which in turn enabled her to get back to work sooner.

That experience and subsequent ones with other editors have taught Lallensack that “open communication is key,” a lesson she carried with her when she became an editor herself, she says. When a writer she worked with seemed to show signs of anxiety recently, she knew how to initiate a conversation with them.

In guiding these conversations, it’s helpful to stay focused on identifying what the issue is and what the person needs, adds Gruttadaro. Doing so will help editors maintain good boundaries. It’s important to resist the urge to become overly involved, Morello says. “You don’t need to pry. You don’t need to ask for more details than they want to give you,” she says. And while it may seem obvious, it’s also a good idea to gently encourage them to seek professional help if they haven’t already done so.

 

Providing Support

Once a writer discloses a mental health concern, editors should ask whether they need accommodations and if so, what those might be. Asking these questions zeroes in on specific supports and helps writers feel comfortable and safe enough to answer honestly.

“It’s really hard for people who are dealing with mental health problems to ask for extra time and accommodations,” Arnold cautions. “It often feels like [a] deep personal failure.”

Not only are accommodations helpful for writers, they’re also legally required. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot discriminate against employees with a mental health condition, and they have a right to receive reasonable supports. (The act does not apply to independent contractors.)

Establishing the right adjustments early on helps editors meet their needs too, by avoiding issues like missed deadlines or gnarled production schedules, Morello says. “I used to tell my interns, ‘Stories are coming in like planes on a runway, and I have to make sure they don’t crash,’” she says. “The earlier you know there might be an issue, the easier we can accommodate it.”

A writer’s specific needs will likely vary depending on whether they are experiencing a more acute crisis, such as grief and depression following a death in the family, or a chronic mental health condition like major depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder. Editors should keep in mind that supporting writers with chronic conditions will be a long-term part of the working relationship. The types of modifications these writers need may fluctuate over time as their symptoms wax and wane or medications are adjusted, for example.

 

To identify the right accommodations, editors can ask: How might your condition affect your work? What kinds of adjustments do you need? Do you need short-term or long-term changes?

 

Editors should also take care to refrain from treating mental health conditions the same as physical conditions, like a broken leg, according to Gruttadaro. A broken leg is temporary, while mental health conditions typically are not. “People may live with them for most of their lives,” she says. What’s more, mental health conditions, by their nature, may have a more taxing effect on those who are attempting to juggle the mentally demanding responsibilities of journalism, such as conducting research, interviewing, writing, and managing time. That said, acknowledging that mental health conditions are just as common as physical ones and are equally deserving of empathy can help editors quell the stigma associated with mental illness and create a more supportive environment.

To identify the right accommodations, editors can ask: How might your condition affect your work? What kinds of adjustments do you need? Do you need short-term or long-term changes?

Often, all a writer needs is a delayed deadline. This can be especially helpful when a depressive episode, for example, disrupts daily routines, de Bode says. “If the piece isn’t time-sensitive, [a delayed deadline is] a huge help, both to give the person time for self-care, but also, knowing that down the road you have an income guaranteed.”

Some writers may need adjustments to their workload, says Torie Bosch, a senior editor at Slate. For example, when a writer informed her that she was grieving the death of a parent, Bosch offered to allow the writer to work on a longer-term project instead of shorter, newsier stories that required a quick turnaround. “I was not about to pressure her on deadlines, because I care about her much more as a person than [about] a given story,” she says. “I really tried to take my cues from her on what she wanted to do.” Some days, the writer welcomed the distraction of a more demanding story, for example.

Additional accommodations might include time off during the day to attend therapy sessions, permission to work from home, or a leave of absence. For freelancers, who set their own schedules, requested relief typically involves more time to complete assignments, flexible deadlines, or, for those on retainer, a lighter load.

Bosch, who has worked with several writers with mental health concerns, says she has always been able to fulfill their requests for assistance. She credits her publication’s supportive culture for helping writers feel safe coming forward and asking for what they need. “Slate is a very humane place,” she says. “It’s a place that’s always put people’s health ahead of career.”

That mental health–centered approach also benefits the workplace at large, she adds. It boosts morale, creates a healthier work environment, and helps editors retain talent. In a stressful profession that can demand long hours and, at times, bearing witness to suffering, a supportive environment has become a necessity for all of us, not just those grappling with mental health issues, Bosch adds.

“Journalism is hard,” she says. “We all work really, really hard because we believe in the work we’re doing—not to make money, because it’s not a profitable thing. So, I think the more we can do to support each other, the better.”

 

 

Peter Weiss

April Reese

April Reese is a freelance science and environment writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Follow her at @areesesantafe.

 

 

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