Opinion

The lasting psychological toll of reporting the pandemic

Erica Lenti: 'What happens when you can’t escape the news, when it’s your livelihood and an innate habit built into your routine?'

The apartment is drowning in noise. There’s nowhere to be these Friday nights, so I’m washing dishes that have stacked up in our sink all day. Two feet in front of me, on our dining room table-cum-workspace, my partner, Arielle, is producing CBC’s nightly national newscast, three screens and a smartphone blaring the voices of writers and reporters and anchors and control-room crew. Between the splashing of the water in the sink in front of me and the sound of CBC veteran Ian Hanomansing’s voice humming through the phone, I can barely hear myself think. This is our pandemic reality: loud, unfiltered, work and home life blended together in a whir of noise.

Arielle and I have spent the past year, like many city-dwelling Canadians, working from home. That home is a 682-square-foot apartment in midtown Toronto, a space we once loved for its open-concept floor plan and now despise for its lack of doors. Each morning, we start our days a few steps away from each other, overhearing each other’s Zoom calls. Most days, it’s impossible to escape each other’s work: I’ve gotten used to brushing my teeth to the sound of interviews with infectious disease specialists and to falling asleep to the fifth consecutive live hour of news as the virus worsens.

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As a senior editor for an online LGBTQ2S+ magazine, I spent the early days of the pandemic thinking of ways we might tell COVID-19 stories about some of our society’s most vulnerable. Arielle, meanwhile, helped produce daily news for the public broadcaster, tracking the virus as it swept the country. In between it all, we scoured Twitter for the latest news and refreshed public health websites for updated case counts. Our families often rounded off evening catch-up conversations with burning questions: What masks do the doctors say we should be wearing? When are the vaccines coming? Is it safe for me to go to the dentist? We always felt obliged to answer, even as our pandemic fatigue set in.

Mental health experts have recommended setting limits on the amount of news we consume about COVID-19—too much of it and we unnecessarily and chronically stress our bodies and minds. The therapist I began seeing early on in the COVID-19 lockdown suggested I ease up on the Twitter doomscrolling and cap my news consumption. He came up with a plan: No COVID talk after eight o’clock. Arielle and I agreed it would be good for us. We failed spectacularly. When my own work day ended at 6 p.m., Arielle was often still chipping away at the night’s newscast, producing panels and interviews with doctors and politicians while I roasted vegetables in the adjacent kitchen. Dinner was served with a side of headlines, read aloud by that evening’s anchor. And as we wrestled to fall asleep after another day with high death counts and news of COVID-19 variants spreading, we fell into old habits, exchanging links to new articles and watching the evening news beneath the covers.

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What happens when you can’t escape the news, when it’s both your livelihood and consuming it is an innate habit built into your routine? For journalists like Arielle and me, it could have lasting effects. In a November 2020 study, American researchers examined the relationship between stress and news consumption during the early days of the pandemic. They found that the more those surveyed consumed COVID-19 media coverage, the more they experienced psychological distress. And that’s just the effect on an average consumer. Last July, the results of research conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism into the mental health consequences for journalists of covering COVID-19 were so alarming that they released preliminary data early, finding that a majority of journalists surveyed were experiencing anxiety, depression or some kind of significant psychological stress. “Even experienced reporters working for large, well-funded media organizations are often struggling to cope with the demands on reporting on the pandemic,” the report reads.

I’ve felt that stress acutely. I’ve always been an anxious person, but my anxiety spiked to levels I couldn’t fathom over the past year. Thinking about the virus and the ways I might infect myself or Arielle, I scrubbed my hands dozens of times a day until my knuckles cracked and bled. My dreams turned into nightmares about lying alone in a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator. Even Arielle, the steelier of the two of us, started having asthma attacks brought on by COVID anxiety; struggling to breathe mimicked symptoms of the virus, only worsening her anxiety in a vicious cycle. At my worst, I resolved not to leave my apartment for a day, fearful that my double masking and hand-washing couldn’t prevent me from contracting a highly contagious new variant from a stranger on the street.

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For most of last year, we have been informed to a fault. Sure, we know how to protect ourselves, how to best support our essential workers and reduce risk for the safety of our communities. And we are immensely privileged to be working from home and out of harm’s way. But the psychological toll remains: We have to face those stories of unjust illness and hospitalization and death every day, from our living room and kitchen and bedroom where we once laughed and dined and slept.

Even if our pre-COVID-19 routines make a comeback, we’ve changed. We’ve seen what illness on a global scale does to the vulnerable, how a virus has shattered our illusions of equity or fairness in the world. Our baseline of anxiety has risen because, as journalists, we’ve seen some of the worst of humanity on an intimate level. We can’t unsee it; rather, we have to keep facing it, even when this pandemic ends.

Eventually, when it’s safe again to do so, Arielle and I will return to our respective newsrooms—a physical spaces to hold the stresses of our livelihoods. The dining table will be home to good dinners, and our bedroom won’t be a quiet place to take a Zoom call. But it is naive to think that stress and anxiety will dissipate wholly, or that we won’t still carry the news back into the living room and kitchen and bedroom that were once our offices. The pandemic has changed the way we work and the way we internalize that work. The pandemic has changed us—at work, at home, at rest. The noise in this apartment will someday quiet, but the buzzing in our minds will stay.