Photo | Hana Nikčević

Trying to sustain mental health in the era of breaking news

I’ve had a subscription to The New York Times since August 2016, when the United States presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was becoming increasingly volatile. I thought it would be beneficial to engage with the electoral and international politics of the day. I didn’t foresee my obsessive future with breaking news alerts. On the night of the election, I couldn’t enjoy the concert I was attending because I kept checking the Electoral College map, my anxiety growing as I watched state after state flip from blue to red. Though the genuine danger of Donald Trump’s presidency was disconcerting regardless, only recently did I realize the damaging effects of a 24-hour news cycle.  

The New York Times push notifications arrive steadily on my phone every day, covering U.S. politics, international crises, and opinion pieces, among other stories. With this onslaught of information, I consume negative headlines at an hourly pace. Recent articles include: “How U.S. Intelligence Agencies Underestimated North Korea,” “Republican Senators Raise Possible Charges Against Author of Trump Dossier,” and “El Salvador Again Feels the Hand of Washington Shaping Its Fate.” I can name obscure U.S. Congressional committee chairmen, Donald Trump’s inner policy advisors, and have become burdened with a growing internal stress that threatens my mental health. Being able to rattle off the names and acts of prominent U.S. senators or wealthy Republican donors is useful in political discourse, but such conversations can harm one’s stability.  

I tried to strike a balance by shelving articles to read at a later date. However, due to the constant influx of news, week- or day-old articles become less relevant and lead me to ask “what if” concerning important events from the past. For example, I still have not read a New York Times feature from October 11th, 2016 titled “I’m the Last Thing Standing Between You and the Apocalypse’: Inside the final weeks of Hillary Clinton’s cautious—and surprisingly risky—campaign” because I am afraid of its contents. 

I am afraid of what may happen to my mood when I read it as a depressing retrospective instead of a pertinent political analysis published before the election. I am afraid of becoming emotional when I reflect on what the state of international diplomacy would look like had Secretary Clinton won the election. I am afraid that the incessant incursion of breaking news is making us desensitized to policies expelling refugees or to repetitive demagogic statements from unqualified politicians. 

Reading breaking news on an hourly basis can be mentally exhausting. Grasping the complexities of an ongoing landmark legal case or healthcare policy can cause a sense of panic; embracing journalism slips into embracing agitation. We cannot distance ourselves from the obsession to stay up to date, but this damaging habit then internalizes our anxieties. The immediacy of breaking news numbs us to disheartening headlines and can result in prolonged distraction because we feel an utter helplessness at how to process ongoing global devastations and decisions. Mental health inadvertently became a sacrifice, because I falsely believed that remaining an engaged citizen trumped perpetual anxiety. The stigma and disregard for mental health exacerbates the difficulty in maintaining an equilibrium in personal priorities.  

However, it is treacherous to believe that it’s easier to ignore the news rather than absorb it. The manner in which the information is understood—with a spectrum of perspectives and mediums that are created by diverse voices and multiple sectors, such as women working in blue-collar professions speaking out about the #MeToo movement—can foster a culture that provides inclusive spaces for profound conversations about uncomfortable issues.  

We should endeavour to embrace worry at key moments so we don’t fall into a willful ignorance of truth. 

Taking a break to read fiction instead of fact can be a comfort. Watching late-night political comedy can help dilute the distress breaking news may induce (such as Seth Meyers referring to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas as a “sentient butter sculpture.”) I’ve finished reading most of the articles in my ‘Save for Later’ section, but I know that, in order to maintain my mental health, it is beneficial and necessary to take a break from following the political beat as it updates.  

The process of achieving an individual sense of mental health can be stalled by the news media, but its effects should not be detrimental. Touting mental health as a permanent, joyous state is impersonal and unrealistic. Instead, increasing or reducing our consumption of the news to match our changing mental states can decrease the negative associations between journalism and anxiety. If we can start to reconcile mental health not as an achievement, but as a progressive, fluctuating disposition, the news cycle can be a marker of evolving atmospheres instead of a burden.