Limiting your consumption of news is often cited as a way to protect your mental health. It’s tempting—but it’s also a luxury. For Lisa Ling, a veteran journalist who has reported on everything from the culture of U.S. prisons to child trafficking around the globe, avoiding the headlines isn’t an option.
Consuming every bit of coronavirus news while staying mentally strong is Ling’s current job as host of the new show The Road to a Vaccine. “I don’t think that I’ve ever felt this level of unease about the world before in my life. It’s really made me recognize the vast social inequities that exist in this country,” she said when I spoke to her in late May. “They’ve always been there and I’ve always known them to exist, but this has put such a spotlight on how unfair our health care system is mostly to communities of color. The deficiencies that exist in underserved communities, they’re devastating and they’re immoral—it’s incumbent upon all of us to figure out ways to make health care more equitable for everyone.”
Reading the news these days—and especially reporting it—requires serious mental and emotional stamina. “It’s estimated that mental health could become the next global pandemic,” says Ling. In a recent episode of the show devoted to the mental health implications of the coronavirus pandemic, Arianna Huffington weighed in on the balance between reading the headlines without getting overwhelmed. Her advice: Mute your news alerts before bed. “That simple tip has been really helpful for me,” Ling says. “I’m still consuming massive amounts of information, but at night I’m doing my best to cut myself off.”
Spending your day leaning into the news, instead of away from it, also brings hope, Ling says. “One of the people that we featured on our show a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Adaora Okoli, is an internal medicine resident physician in New Orleans. She got infected with Ebola herself while she was treating patients in her home country of Nigeria and is now on the front lines in New Orleans holding people’s hands through their battle with COVID-19,” she says. “Her spirit and her desire to be that person who holds the hands of her patients has just been so inspiring to me—she has really driven me to try to be that person for other people who are struggling.”
We asked Ling how she protects her mental health while reporting on some of the biggest crises of our time—and for the books (and beverages) that are nourishing her spirit.
What part of the past few months has been the most challenging for you personally?
Because the virus originated in China, people who look like me are being targeted. They are being assaulted verbally. They’re being harassed. In some cases they’re physically attacked. I myself have been the recipient of some very hateful messages on social media. And so in some ways, I get as nervous about the virus of hate as the virus of COVID-19.
How have the past few months changed the way you prioritize self-care?
I’ve really had to make it a priority to figure out ways to take care of myself and calm myself because I know that my anxiety rubs off on my kids. The other night, for example, I was sleeping with my girls and at about three or four o’clock in the morning, I felt my eldest daughter kind of touching me. And I looked over and she was wide awake. I said, “Honey, why are you awake at three in the morning?” And she said, “Because you were just thrashing around and almost screaming.”
I try really hard not to talk about my anxiety during the day when I’m with them, but it’s obviously manifesting in my dreams and when I’m with them at night. That’s when I realized that I need to start taking steps to try to ensure that they feel protected and that my anxiety doesn’t rub off on them.
What does it look like for you to manage that anxiety right now?
I’m having a glass of wine every night, which is not characteristic of me. I’m someone who would socially drink on occasion, but now I’m finding myself having a drink every night. And I live in California, so I might have like a gummy here or there, which is very helpful too.
Just over the last two weeks, I started reading a non-scientific book—Americanah. It’s so good. I am also listening to an audiobook called The Sword and the Shield. It’s about the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the civil rights movement—two civil rights leaders who had totally different styles, and who relied on each other for different reasons even though they didn’t really have much of a relationship. It’s really well researched and well written.
$30.00, Loyalty Books
$16.00, Mahogany Books
Everything that I’ve been watching on television, with the exception of “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan, has been about the coronavirus.
How is your reporting influencing your mental state?
There’s nothing that I would rather be doing right now than reading and understanding as much as I can about this virus and the efforts in the global community to develop a vaccine or treatment for people who are infected. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve never been more interested in trying to understand what viruses are, how they work, and what the likely treatment options are for them.
It’s inspiring to get to interact with these people who are on fire to develop a vaccine. I just spoke with a scientist who worked for five years on the Ebola vaccine and was just coming up for air when he was told to start working on a vaccine for COVID-19. When I asked him how he felt about that, he said, “You know what, it's a huge challenge, but we’re up for it.” I mean, this is their life’s work. These are brilliant people who take it personally to figure out how to come up with treatments and vaccines for this virus. And that’s really inspiring to me.
How are you finding moments of joy and silver linings during this time?
While this virus has put a lot of ugliness on display, it’s also highlighted incredibly moving things that have happened. This movement around frontline health care workers has been so inspiring—they’re finally getting the recognition that they deserve, and I hope that this continues. I am just so in awe of the risks they take every day, having to leave their own family and head to the front line to do battle with this disease. Those stories have really fueled me.
One of the things that touched me when I interviewed Dr. Okoli—she’s a physician, right, so she’s always enjoyed taking care of patients. But when she got infected with Ebola herself and had to rely on medical staff and health care workers, she said she developed this new sense of empathy that she brings to her patients in New Orleans. She can relate to them in a way that many people can’t. That empathy was just so palpable. A lesser person may have run away from that, but she dug her heels in and headed toward the front line.
Hopefully a greater sense of empathy is something that comes out of this moment in our history.
I hope so. I think because we’re all home so much, it’s easy to fall into that social media death trap where there’s so much negative commentary and people are just spewing so much betrayal. It’s easy to buy into that.
But I think it’s so fundamentally important to recognize that there are far more people who want good and want positive and want something better to emerge—I don’t think that we recognize that enough.
Originally Appeared on Glamour