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MENTAL ILLNESS EPIDEMIC IN PR: WHAT’S THE WAY OUT?

A research report on mental health and well-being launched by the Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA) on October 10, 2019, a day declared by the United Nations as Mental Health Day, reveals that 89% of PR practitioners have struggled with mental illness at one point in their careers or the other. This translates to nine out of ten practitioners.

This statistics may be frightening to the average PR practitioner in UK, where the research was conducted. But there is much more to worry about in other less developed climes. Compare the conditions of work and general conditions of living in UK with those of developing countries like Nigeria, and your guess is as good as any person’s. The global picture of mental health epidemic in the PR industry may be deeper than you think.

Francis Ingham, the Director General of PRCA has rightly advised that the time for our industry to take action on mental health is now. This article is a response to that advice. It is meant to spread the word on the need for mental health and well-being of PR practitioners. And it will attempt to define mental illness, discuss the types of mental illness common to the PR industry, trace the link between mental illness and PR, and suggest ways for our industry to get out of the menace in which it is currently stuck.

What is Mental Illness?

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Mental illness occurs when the brain, just like any other organ such as the heart, or the kidney, is not working the way it should”. The association identifies some of the symptoms as follows:

  • Loss of motivation and energy
  • Change in sleep pattern
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Disturbances in thought or perception
  • Overwhelming obsessions or fears.

The Link Between Mental Illness and PR

You do not need to look so far to see the link between mental illness and PR. PR work is associated with high levels of stress, which scientists have long identified as both the cause and trigger of mental illness in cases outside physical injury to the brain or drug abuse.

The pace of change in the industry and in the business environment in the last few years has been unprecedented. For instance, 24/7 news cycle and the need to track and respond to issues on social media in real time have brought new pressures. The PR professional has to be on duty round the clock. According to the PRCA’s report, it is this “always on” culture that is putting extraordinary pressure and stress on professionals, resulting in mental illness.

A look at the earlier PRCA reports reveals that mental health issues in the industry have been increasing steadily from year to year in the same manner as the pace of change in digital communication technology and in the business environment. Unfortunately, the industry has not done enough to create the required level of awareness about the problem. What has culminated into the mental illness epidemic we are witnessing in the PR industry today is the fall-out of ignorance among PR professionals on the link between stress and their job.

Stress is not dangerous just because you get overstretched or overwhelmed with work and other demands. It is dangerous because it does tremendous damage  to your body and mind. Several studies suggest that it is a key element in developing mental illness. Stress can damage or impair certain areas and functions of your brain as a result of overstimulation by stress hormones. This has been identified as the a major contributor to anxiety disorder, a mental illness prevalent in the PR industry, and characterized by signs such as fidgeting, biting of finger nails or tapping of feet in mild cases. In severe cases, feelings of helplessness, having a sense of impending doom, racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and nausea.

Stress can also result in depression, a term used to describe those terrible periods when you experience a sense of worthlessness, self-hate and sometimes, guilt, culminating in an inability to concentrate or make decisions. Sleep problems, changes in appetite, fatigue and suicidal thoughts are also some of the symptoms.

Scientists suggest that when certain regions of the brain have been overworked as a result of stress, certain neurons can be damaged or impaired such that the brain becomes irresponsive, giving rise to depression.

Bipolar disorder is another mental illness you can find among PR professionals. Also known as bipolar affective disorder or manic depression, this mental illness is associated with dramatic shifts in moods, energy levels or behaviours. At one point the patient could experience depression, and at another, manic states of high energy, hyperactivity and a sense that they can accomplish just about anything.

While it is true that we all experience our low and high times, for bipolar disorder, those times are in the extreme. Poor judgement, impulsive behaviour, poor concentration, poor sleep, low sex drive are some of its symptoms.

Some scientists are of the view that stress on its own cannot cause bipolar disorder, but it can be a trigger to persons who are genetically vulnerable.

The Way Out

The way out of this mental illness mess is for the PR industry to acknowledge it has the problems, and then take a second look at its practices to identify its roots, and take decisive action across its length and breadth to deal with it. Such actions should include the following:

  • Make stress management a key topic in PR and communication study programmes in the universities and in the continuous development programmes of national professional bodies.
  • Create awareness for mental health issues prevalent in the industry. A global campaign is the option.
  • Work hard to remove stigmatization of mental illness in order to encourage practitioners to talk about it. This might require that our global body, Global Alliance for PR and Communication Management comes up with a new standard on diversity and inclusion that covers this issue.
  • Encourage PR firms to train some staff as mental health first aiders whose responsibility should be to help other members of staff experiencing the problem identify where to find solutions.
  • Encourage PR firms to develop mental health policies to guide their actions. Perhaps, the best way to do this is for national PR professional bodies to add it as a requirement for the issuance of practice licenses.
  • Such policies should address issues of workload and make provisions for flexible work, which is gaining momentum among highly skilled millennials today.

PR is a high stress job. It is only reasonable that the industry take concrete steps to help professionals manage their stress and stem the tide of mental illness. When the mental well-being of practitioners is ignored, meeting the needs and targets of clients could be a mirage. A stitch in time saves nine. ]