How high school advisers can help instill good mental health practices in reporting

By Twumasi Duah-Mensah

It’s 7 a.m. on a Wednesday. She doesn’t have class until 8 or 9 a.m. — she doesn’t need to go to school this early. But today is different.

Caroline Chen, then a senior at East Chapel Hill High School, wrote a column in the East Chapel Hill Observer (ECHO) on how the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) “chokes authentic progress in Chapel Hill.”

That Wednesday morning, Chen received an email accusing her of defamation and demanding the column be taken down. She hadn’t dealt with anything like this before.

So she rushed to school at 7 a.m. She needed to find Neal Morgan, her adviser at the ECHO. While driving, she stopped at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Weaver Dairy Rd. That’s when Chen broke and started crying.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Chen said. “I think I’ve made a huge mistake.”

Morgan and Chen went through the email and drafted a response together. Their conversation lasted an hour, during which Chen said they realized most of her piece was accurate or opinion. The only correction: mixing up the author of a housing report.

Local journalists are no strangers to feeling pressure related to a story. They have to be resilient to navigate the stress of the job, no matter their level.

But over time, if that stress isn’t managed effectively, it can lead to burnout for journalists, according to a 2023 CISLM research report. Young people are among the journalists most affected by burnout. Some local journalists start their careers in high school – what are ways advisers are helping student journalists prioritize mental health?

One of the strategies: Establish opportunities for 1:1 meetings, like Morgan did for Chen. Morgan offered feedback and support for handling criticism, which made Chen feel more confident in her journalism abilities.

Now, as managing editor of The Stanford Daily, Chen does what Morgan did for her. When a first-year writer received an email full of personal attacks, Chen offered to call or meet them in the office to ease the tension. She then went through the article with the writer to sift through what needed a follow-up.

According to the American Press Institute, burnout is a systemic, newsroom-wide issue. Sam Ragland, API’s vice president of journalism programs, emphasized that while journalists can look inward and orient themselves to complete the stress cycle, news organizations must offer greater support to solve the issue.

Many advisers are learning from and supporting each other to learn the best ways to support students’ mental health, especially in a post-pandemic world.

Carol Eanes, a mentor for high school journalism advisers at the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association (NCSMA), said the organization hosts a three-day workshop in June and a graduate-level course in July for advisers just starting out.

In 2023, the workshop hosted 25 advisers across NC, with panels including “Start with Why: The Role of the Adviser in Student Media,” “Staff Organization, Coaching Students and Editors” and an advisor roundtable.

One of Eanes’ mentees, adviser Anna Barefoot Saunders, encourages opportunities for discussion among her students at The West Wind, West Brunswick High School’s student newspaper, whenever possible, especially when dealing with sensitive topics.

A diverse group of West Wing High School student staff posing for a group photo. They are standing and sitting in multiple rows on and in front of bleachers, smiling or making playful gestures. The students are dressed in casual attire and the background features a clear sky with a portion of a red roofed building.
A group of West Wing High School student staff posing for a group photo. (Photo courtesy of Anna Barefoot Saunders)

For example, when one of her students, copy editor Noah Farris, took on a story on sexting, he was apprehensive.

“I felt like the entire interview, I’m holding my breath, praying I don’t ask the wrong question or overstep any kind of boundary because it’s such a sensitive topic,” Farris said.

Though he was nervous, he felt supported and prepared. Farris said he drew on in-class discussions to prepare for the interview. Every Friday, Saunders’ students present their articles to the rest of the class in a showcase. Saunders said this shows students what they’re supposed to be doing, like how to use interviews. She said her students offer great notes that challenge their classmates.

Farris said he used both the lessons he learned in class and his own instinct to inform his interview strategies. He said he didn’t want to take advantage of anyone who didn’t understand what “off the record” meant, so he checked multiple times with sources if they didn’t want their quotes in the article. If someone looked uncomfortable during the interview, Farris let them know they didn’t need to answer any of his questions.

Another strategy for advisers: Pairing students in teams. In other cases where students are covering challenging topics, Saunders said she’ll create teams of writers, supervised by a student on the editorial board in case they need extra support.

She has a team of two students on a story about the same subject as the Varnamtown podcast, a series investigating how Varnamtown, N.C., got tied up with Pablo Escobar in the 1980s.

Saunders said she gave the pair an extension —another strategy to help mitigate burnout, when possible — because she wanted to do the article right. She said the podcast can feel judgmental of rural, small-town culture.

After several weeks, the team secured an interview with the daughter of the podcast’s main subject, Dale Varnam.

Indeed, Saunders’ students have taken the lead, and they feel empowered to tackle heavy subjects.

“We can sit here pretending that this stuff doesn’t exist, but that’s not going to change anything,” Farris said. “I feel like, to make any kind of change at all, there has to be a conversation about it.”