RYAN: I think we’re going to get started with some things for this afternoon. We’re going to move into a new theme this afternoon. We’re going to take on maybe some hard conversations. The second theme on our schedule is mental health and self-care. And I wanted to take a moment to tell you how grateful I am that all of you are making space to have these kinds of conversations togetherm as an industry. Just speaking from my personal experience, my father is a counselor. There are members of my family who’ve had mental illness. These are conversations that I have grown up having. And I think that, culturally, we still feel really uncomfortable talking about mental health together.
So I’m so grateful that we’re here and able to do this. I think we don’t talk about this enough as journalists. We have incredibly stressful jobs, and they are stressful jobs at the best of times. These aren’t easy times for news, and there aren’t easy times to report the news. So we set aside some time for those individuals as a community, because we all find meaning in this work, and we need to stay healthy so that we can keep our eyes on that meaning even when things are really, really hard. So I want to take a second before we move to our first speaker to call out two things: as we have some of these conversations this afternoon, if you need to step aside, we have a couple ways that we can help make that happen.
Upstairs, along that hallway, you know, with the frosted glass, there are couple of rooms. One is marked “quiet workspace.” And if you just need to check out, chill out, or whatever, that’s a great space to do that. If you would like to access the support team, we’re on call here at SRCCON:WORK. If at any point you just want to take a moment, step aside, and sit with someone to process something difficult, that’s what we’re here for. So the safety line on the back of your badge is a great way to reach out and make contact there. You can also just come up to any of us in the blue or yellow T-shirts. We will connect you with the person that can support you, and can listen.
So just two resources to be aware of here this afternoon in particular. So now I’m really excited to introduce you to our first speaker for this afternoon. Erin Brown spent a little more than 20 years working in sports journalism. Editor, producer, reporter for ESPN, CBSsports.com, and Fox Sports Florida. She teaches media now as faculty at University of Miami. And she’s a native Floridian, so she’s not super comfortable with the weather that we’re having. I’m okay. I’m from the Pacific Northwest. But you might want to check in and see how she’s feeling about the cold later on. So she’s going to talk later on about the insights about the job that we do. There’s a lot of adrenaline, there’s long hours, and there’s bad habits that sometimes make us feel invincible but we have to be prepared for when things start to fall apart. So Erin, really appreciate you joining us.
[ Applause ]
ERIN: So like Ryan said, I teach at the University of Miami. I don’t have a microphone and I just want to make sure that everyone can hear me okay. Okay. Awesome, awesome. So we have — gosh, I feel like I’m in class with the projector already. Okay. Well, I guess Ryan’s just trying to fix this. I have to say there is a little bit of irony, I don’t know if anyone noticed when we came in that the special exhibition going on is what — I’m trying to think — “Things Fall Apart.” And I can’t tell you how much I wanted to change my talk to “Things Fall Apart.” But I wanted to stick with basically what I had prepared not that I tripped over some — hopefully I don’t trip over on stage. The slides?
ERIK: It’s coming shortly.
ERIN: I have that problem in class but you guys are behaved and not having a billion conversations like they do. Please keep that off the record. I don’t want to get in trouble. So preparing for a breakdown. So like, again, we said a moment ago, things fall apart and I love it. This is not working. Things fall apart, truly. We had this all set up. Give me a second here. I apologize. Apple, you failed me.
AUDIENCE: Is it possible to move the shade just a foot because it’s kind of —
ERIK: Is it all or nothing?
ERIN: And I thought so much more was going to go wrong. There we go! Here it is. Sorry about that. Hurray! Thank you. Obviously, a great, great idol for us as journalists. And as journalists, sometimes we think we are invincible. We produce a 24/7 intense news cycle. We manage a firehose of information, and we sometimes sprint toward danger. I don’t know if there are any photojournalists in the room. But we’re also human. Instead of finishing my senior year at the University of Florida back in 2001, I took the year off and I spent it in New York City and if you put that connection together, you have now learned that I had horrible timing. I witnessed 9/11 and like many in the city at that time, I really needed mental help. And finding a practitioner at that time in a city of thousands of them took months. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed me with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder and after that year, I went back to school, completed my degree and I went to work for CBSsports.com. I worked hard, and I played hard and it caught up with me. I suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 29. While I was recovering from surgery, stress of work, loss of a friend, the triggers of the [ Inaudible ] intensive bombing of that time sent me into a spiral. And to that, the doctor added that to my list of diagnoses. I was forced to take a leave of absence. And in those months that I was trying to regain the ability to do things that we take for granted every day as humans, sleep, eat, breathe, even something as simple as going to check the email, I also had to figure a very complex system designed to help me.
So knowing how the federal employee and mental health systems work before I fell ill, it would have helped me greatly so I could have just focused on healing. Or it might have even prevented my situation from getting out of control in the first place.
So I say this today, the information I’m presenting to you I hope you never have to act on it in your lifetime. I really do. But I really do encourage you to take the time to prepare for the storm that may one day come your way.
So before we start counting our vacation days and sick days, fretting over a leave of absence, you have to realize there’s a safety net for you. Even in today’s hostile client, the federal government has our back. If you don’t know already, a family member will be back an. It provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave and it protects our right to be returned to the same position that we held before if we need to take some time off to care for ourselves physically, or mentally. This law also extends to our role as a caretaker, as a spouse, a parent, or a child. And what’s good, since this was enacted, many states have actually enhanced this law. For required pay leave, some have changed the definition to now include same-sex marriage partners, their children, grandparents, and I’m trying to think — and in-laws. That’s right.
The other thing that some states have lowered the minimum employee requirement so that it now includes more workplaces who benefit from this act. We also have the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most of us think that this is just something that applies to those with physical impairments. As of 2009, it includes mental health conditions. The ADA assures us that we can partake in quote, “In major life activities without discrimination,” going so far as listing: learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, and interacting with others as key components.
Take a moment to think about that the first one a second because these are all abilities that we rely on to do our job as journalists. So the chaos of the newsroom causes anxiety attacks. You might be able to go to your boss and seek a quiet space to be able to do your work. Or if you’ve been diagnosed with a condition like I was where it affects your focus and your ability to read, you might be able to ask someone to install a screenreader on your computer to assist you with your work.
Hopefully you all have empathic bosses who care about your well-being but we’re legally protected for all those on the organizational chart who may not care. The ADA offers us reassurance — that with a little help, we can be productive in our roles. Key thing: if you are an employee with benefits, look into whether your company has an employee assistance program. It is a cryptic name for something that we can simply call “counseling services.” And a lot of companies have this.
The number of appointments that they can arrange for you can be about six to eight, but, again, it does vary. And the reason you want to find out about your EAP is that it can be a stop-gap measure if you are dealing with stressful situations. It can get you into a counselor pretty quickly. You want to review the mental health coverage provided by your employer. Key thing to note: the federal law limits the yearly visits for mental health practitioners. This is something that came into effect in the late 2000s. And this obviously includes, psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed therapists. Check if you have short-term disability coverage. In cases where you may need to take a leave of absence beyond your sick days, this is going to cover a percentage or all of your salary.
And the length of time varies. And again, it all depends on your company, but it’s very possible that it may coincide with the time you’re granted with the Family Medical Leave Act. So at this point, we can see that from a federal and employee level, there are some safety nets in place for us. But the most crucial part of our preparation is navigating the mental health system, and that is exceptionally challenging. I hope you like my dilapidated house. Sadly, it’s true. America’s mental health system is completely overwhelmed.
Arranging an appointment initially with a practitioner these days may take weeks or months under normal circumstances. The lists of providers your insurance company provides may be inaccurate. Some doctors will drop policies and not inform them. Others may not be accepting new patients. At the very least, if anything you do after this conference, take the time to find a licensed therapist. Schedule an appointment with him or her even if it’s just to discuss stress coping mechanisms. And the reason that you want to do this is to become an established patient.
That’s the key. You want to make sure you feel comfortable with this person, and if you don’t, it’s okay if you seek the services of another. The thing about getting in to see a therapist or a mental health service practitioner is if you have a medical file with this person, you are more likely to get in sooner or later for an emergency visit.
If you’re a new patient and in crisis and seeking help, you still may wait weeks or months. Another thing, if a doctor or therapist is not taking any new patients, ask them for a referral because they know the system is overwhelmed. They also know people in the industry and they are more than happy to provide you with a reference to someone that they know and they trust. One thing that’s worth asking when you schedule an appointment: see if you’re going to — ask if you’re going to see the same doctor every time.
Some practices, especially those with many public health and court-ordered referrals, they experience significant turnover in their practices. And seeing the same doctor is really, really important in regaining stability in your life.
Medication. If you reach this point. The idea of taking medication for mental health is something that scares a lot of people. A lot of people feel that there’s a stigma attached and they don’t want to deal with that. But let’s think about this for a second. We take medication to cure the common cold, to manage ailments, to cure cancer. And our nervous system is a physical part of our body. It also experiences abnormalities. Mental illness is as much of a physical one as anything else, so let’s start thinking of it that way.
The pharmaceutical industry, unfortunately, does not have one pill to cure all of our ills. Guess what, they have hundreds. And like my doctor likes to tell me, finding the right medication is not only science, it’s also an art. Medications for mental illness require a lot of patience and vigilance. They’re different from the prescriptions you get when you have a common illness which you usually feel an effect after about 24 hours. Medications for psychiatric conditions may take anywhere from, you know, a couple days to several weeks before you feel the desired effect.
If you’re taking medication, you need to learn about common side effects — this is very important. Keep a daily journal about how you feel. The moment something goes awry, call your doctor. And in my own experience, ironically, which was only a couple weeks ago, a bad medication will usually reveal itself to you in about three to four days if you’re going to have an allergic reaction or something.
So, again, irony. Things fall apart. I’m doing this speech in a history of chemical science… since being invited to give this talk, I was diagnosed with clinical depression for the third time.
AUDIENCE: You’re doing great!
ERIN: I certainly — as journalists you can appreciate this: I certainly wasn’t trying to fact-check all the information that I just gave you. And it hasn’t been easy in these last few months but I can say some of the details I’ve shared today have definitely prevented me from falling into a worst-case scenario. But one new thing that I’ve learned in these weeks has nothing to do with laws or benefits or treatment.
When I started working at the University of Miami, there was a single piece of paper that was left on the cork board outside of my office, and it read, “Everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always.”
It really felt wrong to remove that, so I left it up. In that first year, I lost count of the number of students who confided in me about their own mental health, attempted suicides, and family strife. These are our future journalists and that sign spoke truth. And this year, it has new-found meaning for me because I’m the one fighting the battle that nobody knows about.
The kindness that I’ve tried to show, even on my worst days has been returned in so many unexpected ways. And when I’ve struggled to find the sunshine, there’s always someone — a colleague, a student, a random person — who comes through.
As journalists, again, we like to think that we’re invincible, but let’s not be invisible. We encounter many people in our newsrooms, in our communities, in society, and we know from the stories that we write, and the experiences that we share, it is the truth.
Everyone is experiencing a battle. A smile, a greeting, a show of empathy toward another person makes a huge difference. Every gesture is building an unseen support network. You’re not gonna realize it in the moment that you do those things, but some day, like me, you may be thankful that such a support system exists. Thank you so much.
[ Applause ]
RYAN: Thank you, thank you. Thank you for sharing from your heart and from your emotional experience. Folks, in talking with Erin in the past day or so, if you have questions about some of the information that she shared, she’s here to have conversations with folks. I think she would — is that okay?
ERIN: Yes, I tweeted it out last night that if anyone does want to have a discussion, I am open about this. Like Ryan said, we need to talk about this. And I talk about it with my students when I can. And there’s something you want to talk about, I’m happy over the next two days, even beyond, email, whatever. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and talk. I’m open to talking about all of this. And if you want to hear the crazy circumstances and — of what I’ve been going through and how it’s gotten me here — things fall apart! I’m happy to fill in those details.
RYAN: Thank you so much, Erin. We’re going to take just a moment to switch some things up on the stage up here and we’ll have our second speaker. Thank you.