Journalists help their colleagues through the Netzwerk Research helpline. But that doesn't improve mental health at work.

Men stand and crouch with cameras.

Events like this AfD one can create great tension. Men in particular rarely talk about it. Photo: Karsten Thielker

Hello, this is the help line. It's good that you're calling. What do you want to talk about? This is how a conversation begins in the first anonymous and free telephone consultation for journalists with mental stress. What is special: there are journalists in the receiver. “The concept of peer support is a completely new approach in journalism,” says project director Malte Werner.

The helpline is a project of the journalism association Netzwerk Recherche e. V. and the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism at the University of Cambridge in New York, a clearinghouse on journalism and trauma issues. What began as a testing phase in November 2023 will enter regular operation this spring, funded by the federal government.

Ute Korinth is one of 14 colleagues who take shifts several times a month. “Exchanging ideas with people from the same professional field is very important,” says the journalist and resilience trainer. In preparation, colleagues received training in active listening, question asking, and psychological first aid.

Most callers start talking right away. “You realize that the topic has been discussed for a long time,” Korinth says. Many people are happy when someone listens carefully. Although there are now more reports about mental health, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. “Many people fear that their problem is not important enough or that they steal other people's time,” underlines the project director. But you don't have to come traumatized from a war zone to be able to call the helpline.

lack of appreciation

So far, a third of the calls have been from outsiders and the majority of callers are women. Most people cite professional stress as the reason. “As a professional public service group, we are under special pressure,” says Korinth. According to a 2023 study by the Hans Bredow Institute, almost one in two journalists in Germany often or very often suffers from stress at work, especially in private television and agency journalism.

Corinth explains this by the increasing workload, lack of recognition from society and concern about artificial intelligence. “Unfortunately, things will not improve in the future. Of course, this has an impact on health,” says Korinth.

The person responsible for the helpline project sees the cause of stress in the great media crisis of the turn of the millennium. “The Internet has created many new tasks,” he says. At first, journalists had to create “only” texts for the website, but a few years ago social networks joined in. At the same time, many jobs were eliminated.

More work, less staff

Katharina Hamm notices this too. The journalist wants to remain anonymous for fear of professional consequences, so the taz has changed its name. “There is more and more work at the expense of fewer workers. There is no time for kindness,” she says. The 32-year-old works as a social media editor for a television news program on public broadcasting. She describes his work environment as a “shark tank.”

Added to this is his depression. She didn't get them through her work, but she did reinforce them. “Some days work really affects my self-confidence,” she says. She has partly accepted the fact that much of journalism revolves around egos and hierarchies. “There is a lot of talk about other colleagues behind her back, in a very condescending tone. “I wouldn't be surprised if they also spoke badly about me,” says the journalist. She wouldn't be the only one: according to Hans Bredow's study, almost 16 percent of respondents experience harassment in the workplace.

As a social media editor, Hamm considers herself the “lowest link in the food chain.” Some editors treated her as if she were air. “Even though I've been working there for two years, some colleagues didn't even remember my name,” she says. But that is also a structural problem: the editorial team is large and there is a lot of turnover. According to Otto Brenner's 2022 study, almost 60 percent of all respondents, especially young journalists, have repeatedly thought about leaving their job. Why does she stay anyway? “The job pays me well and gives me stability,” she says.

Hate speech and attacks

According to Hans Bredow's study, other stressors in journalism include sexual harassment and online hate. Since 2018, nearly 60 percent of respondents have experienced degrading or hateful comments related to their work, and 26 percent have been threatened or intimidated.

You don't have to look far into X to see examples like this. There, for example, journalist Sophia Maier writes that “journalists who are visible and have strong opinions, [immer wieder] would be “publicly degraded.” After an interview with an AfD deputy, he was the victim of several shit storms, including the discrediting of his work in an AfD press release.

Journalists also worry about their physical well-being. “When I was still in college, you shouldn't bring any security gear to the protest because it would create a barrier,” recalls Werner, the helpline's project manager. A safety kit is now usually the standard. According to Hans Bredow's study, 41 percent fear that an attack against media professionals will not be punished in Germany.

According to the Dart Center, there is a high risk of mental illness, especially among Mexican war correspondents and journalists reporting on drug trafficking, especially if external stressors coincide with existing symptoms of exhaustion, anxiety or depression.

It is not a substitute for therapy.

Can telephone counseling help? “Our goal is not to replace therapy, but to offer a non-binding discussion between colleagues,” says the project director. The helpline allows you to perceive and express unpleasant feelings. “Collective support can reduce possible feelings of shame and guilt,” emphasizes Tabea Grzeszyk of the Dart Center.

There's a reason why not all journalists in a war zone automatically become mentally ill. We can work on our resilience. “Media professionals play an active role through their reporting, allowing them to better process what they have experienced,” Grzeszyk says.

This gives meaning to work, an important factor for mental health. Although external stress factors can only be changed to a limited extent, the protective factors themselves can also be influenced. In particular, social relationships counteract loneliness and isolation and strengthen resilience.

For self-care, the Dart Center recommends exercising, walking, meditating, interacting with friends and family, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep. Easier said than done. A healthy demarcation of work can also be misinterpreted. “Who allows themselves a lunch break outside the newsroom, while everyone else is eating their hot lunch at work while the news is on?” asks Grzeszyk of the Dart Center.

Report depression

Martin Gommel is a mental health reporter at German reporter. “When you're sick, it's a different reality that can't be remedied with bath products and a spa weekend,” she says. He always knew “something was wrong.” He was first diagnosed with depression in a psychiatric hospital in 2010. At the time, Gommel was still working as a photographer and blogger.

Eight years and numerous hospital stays later, he published a text about his depression for the first time.. “I thought it was important to show the public what it feels like when you get depressed and have to go to the clinic. Especially as a man, because men tend to withdraw more when they are depressed,” she says. Unfortunately, more reports do not lead to more therapy locations.

With his texts he wants to start a conversation with people who are not seen. Especially in journalism, where there is a lot of pressure, many mental illnesses go unnoticed. “At home they collapse,” she says. Martin Gommel sometimes imagines what it would be like if people no longer had to hide their illnesses at work. “He's very lonely when you're sick and you can't even talk about it in the place where you spend a lot of time,” he says. And even if those affected speak openly about it, they are not protected from stupid sayings like “but the sun is shining.”

Gommel himself has never called a crisis hotline like the helpline. “The inhibition threshold is extremely high,” he says. But it's a channel for people who don't have anyone else around them. As much as I appreciate the offer, I wish the helpline wasn't necessary. “The fact that you need an external number shows that you can't talk at work. That is a problem,” he states. “But the mere fact that my work exists is a good sign that something is changing, a form of recognition,” he says.

He Help line You can contact us on Mondays and Tuesdays from 6 to 8 p.m., Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m. and Fridays from 8 to 10 a.m. at (0 30) 75 43 76 33. More information about self-care: Dart Center