My mental health story and why it made me want to be a journalist

Posted: 9 Oct 19
Categories: Blog

By Ryan Hesketh, JDF bursary recipient

Trigger warning: mental illness, suicide

My name is Ryan, and I am a journalist who has experienced both intergenerational, and personal, mental health crises. I am also a bursary recipient from the NCTJ’s Journalism Diversity Fund and right now it’s mental health awareness week in the UK. As such, I was asked if I’d like to write this blog about my experiences with mental health and how they relate to my desire to become a journalist, as well as more generally about the relationship between journalism and neurodiversity.

From the outset, I would like to stress that these are only my experiences and that any other experiences, including entirely contradictory ones, are valid and deserved to be heard. Mental health is complicated. I think if we’ve learned anything as a society in the last few years is that what constitutes illness and health, is far from black and white. If anyone who is reading this is experiencing a mental health crisis please remember: your feelings are real, never believe otherwise.

My mental health story starts with my Dad. He was a very depressed man who took his own life when I was 12. I only mention this because it was the first interaction I ever knowingly had with both journalism and mental health, and here I am more than a decade later writing about both. There was local news coverage of my father’s death at the time, and what was striking about it was how many mistakes they made. A local paper misspelt his name, misidentified the village we lived in, got his age wrong, and made about every mistake you can make in a 200 word story. I’ve never thought about it much before, but perhaps I’m now trying to correct for the injustice that I felt was done.

That was my first interaction with mental health, but it was far from my last. Trauma is generational, and no one can outrun history. During my first year of university, I had what was probably a psychotic episode. I began hearing voices. Luckily, this didn’t last too long, and amazingly I thought nothing of it at the time. Fast-forward three years and I had graduated with a first, and the world was at my fingertips. Of course, that was the moment that my long-buried illness chose to rear its ugly head.

They never tell you how traumatic leaving university will be, if you went straight from school like I did then really you’ve been in education for over 15 years, and it’s the only thing you know. Add on top of this loss of structure the job stress, financial panic, and the often abrupt geographical shunt that happens after graduation, and you have a perfect storm. Or at least, that’s how it was for me.

My mental health has rarely been as bad as it was in my post-graduation year, and it was certainly more consistently bad than it has ever been. I sat at home applying for literally thousands of jobs, getting nowhere, and slowly spiralling further and further into despair. Of course, because crises are like buses, this is when my repressed childhood trauma AND my conflicted sexuality decided to show in all their glory. I cried, often and hard, fought the people I love when they tried to help me, and lost most any sense I had of who I was. It was a hard year, but now we’re here.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because it was real and it happened, and stories like these all too often get sanitised in the telling, or follow a format that has become an ignorable cliché. I am also telling you this because it’s intimately connected to my desire to become a journalist, and why people with these kinds of experience deserve a place in the newsroom.

When I was at my lowest I told myself stories of how I wished things were. Slowly, very slowly, I realised that hearing and telling stories is what makes me happy, and who gets to hear and tell stories every single day? Journalists. More than this, I realised journalists are (or should be) motivated by care for the people they are writing about. Caring for others had always been a tonic for my mind, and the more the idea took form the more perfect it seemed. My poor mental health had cut me to my core, but there I found an unexpected ambition.

Of course, this is a massive oversimplification, but that was basically my journey to wanting to become a journalist and thence to the NCTJ. So now you know. Before I go, I’ll just add quick note on neurodiversity and representation.

A non-diverse newsroom is a shoddy newsroom. If journalism really is about telling stories, then how can certain stories be told without people who know how to tell them? Further, if journalism is about care, then is understanding not the better part empathy? If journalism isn’t diverse then it simply cannot function. Without people representing individuals from every walk of life, with every kind of experience, the voices we hear will always be incomplete. Accurate, empathetic, powerful reporting can only come from common experience, it seems amazing to me that we even have to say that.

Moreover, this isn’t about selling papers by appealing to a wider audience or ticking boxes on quotas, it is simply what is right. Diversity is based on the idea of equality, and everyone should have the equal chance to be heard. The vital role that the media plays in our democracy is redundant if the variety inherent in that democracy is not represented. In fact the media is worse than redundant if it is not diverse, it is downright harmful. If a few individuals control social discourse then the service the media does to democracy rapidly becomes a disservice, and unfortunately that is the situation we find ourselves in now.

My mental health has been a source of great pain throughout my life, and I’m sure it will continue to be so. However, if you take anything from this blog then know that you are not alone, and that you need not be defined by whatever you have suffered. The JDF has helped me begin my journalism career, I’ll let you all know if it turns out to be everything I’d hoped. Diversity is necessary in journalism, because good storytelling is necessary in journalism; it’s all quite simple really.