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I lost my journalism job due to a bipolar episode – workplaces need to do better

Introduction by Croakey: Workplaces need to do much better at supporting staff who have complex mental health needs, according to investigative journalist Jarni Blakkarly, who is based in Naarm/Melbourne.

In the lead up to World Bipolar Day this Saturday, 30 March, Blakkarly shares some of his own experiences of bipolar, and contrasts one workplace that has been supportive with another that undermined his health and wellbeing.


Jarni Blakkarly writes:

When my application to a highly competitive newsroom cadetship program was successful straight out of university, it felt like a dream come true. I couldn’t believe that I was packing up my things in Melbourne and moving up to Sydney to work in the beating heart of SBS, one of Australia’s most reputable broadcasters.

On the weekend shifts I would pinch myself to see Lee Lin Chin come in and sit just a few desks over from me.

The training throughout the cadetship was invaluable and the newsroom management was supportive of my career progression, giving me two promotions in three years, first as an investigative reporter and then later relocating to Adelaide as the South Australia Correspondent. The newsroom was mostly populated with young reporters like me, eager to work hard, but also let off steam in the evenings on the weekends after long shifts.

Many of us were burning out in slow motion.

At the end of an overseas reporting trip in my father’s home country of Malaysia in 2019 – followed by around one week of annual leave I went into an episode of psychosis. It wasn’t my first episode, but the number of years since my first one had meant it was unexpected. I was 24-years-old and I hadn’t been diagnosed with bipolar at the time.

I was flying back from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne with a stop over scheduled in Singapore. By the time I landed at Changi Airport, the fear and paranoia of full-blown psychosis had set in and I became convinced the heavily-armed Singaporean police were about to shoot me at any moment.

After frantically phoning the Australian High Commission in Singapore and, I’m sure, not making much sense, I made a bee-line for the terminal hotel, still within the airport. Over the next two days I sent off a series of desperate tweets saying that I was an Australian journalist stuck in the airport and that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were refusing to help me.

These went off like wildfire with hundreds of retweets, offers for help, and news outlets reaching out to me wanting to know what the story was.

At the same time my mother flew over to Singapore and, with the help of a doctor covered by the company insurance, we managed to get home safely and to a psych hospital in Melbourne.

Shame and regret

Just over a month later I was discharged. I felt such a deep sense of shame and regret about my episode and everything that had happened during my psychosis, the tweets I had sent and phone calls to colleagues and contacts I had made – everything was a blur and the emotions of guilt were still raw.

I was slowly finding my feet and getting back to a routine in life, and I wanted to begin my return to work, the work that had given me so much purpose.

But before I could, I had to face several incredibly long and hostile meetings with management and the HR department.

They scolded me for my “misuse” of the company credit card, going through the charges and expenses made in midst of my episode, despite the fact that these would be covered by the insurance. All I could continue to say was how sorry I was, again and again, holding back tears.

But the thing that they kept coming back to, the thing they continued to berate me about, were my desperate tweets for help and my “breach of social media policy”.

They wanted me to lose my job for breaching the social media policy and, if it wasn’t for the strong support I had from my Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) union lawyer, who sat in on every meeting with me and pushed back hard, it probably would have happened then and there.

Instead, an uneasy middle-ground was reached where I wasn’t fired immediately, but it was made very clear to me that my contract would not be extended when it came up for renewal in around four months’ time. I had been with the organisation for over three years and at no point prior to that was the idea of my contract expiring without renewal ever discussed or suggested.

I was put back on the digital desk, a demotion, and it felt like management went out of their way to make sure I was humiliated, shamed and degraded. I was told not to tweet anything. I was allowed to write stories, but for months I was not allowed to put my byline on them in order to ‘protect me’. From what, I don’t know.

My contract ended and my time was up. I was so disheartened, beaten down and had lost all confidence in myself and my ability to work that I was ready to throw in the towel with journalism all together.

Flexibility, care and consideration

I was lucky enough to land a new job as an investigative journalist elsewhere. Last year when I was diagnosed with bipolar, my work showed me so much flexibility, care and consideration. They showed me that there is another way workplaces can respond to things like this.

Knowing my correct diagnosis has been a huge comfort and has helped me get the right treatment for my condition, which in turn has let me not only stabilise, but thrive in my career – working on big investigations and being nominated for major journalism awards.

Since being diagnosed I have also found a community of people with bipolar through an organisation called Bipolar Life Victoria. We hold monthly peer support meetings and social events, we discuss our experiences of different medications, we laugh and make jokes about the trials and tribulations and we share our stories of the workplace.

Some have disclosed to their workplaces their diagnosis, and suffered discrimination, patronisation and other negative impacts on their work lives as a result. Due to that, many are too afraid to disclose to their work that they have bipolar at all, fearful of the repercussions. This is across a wide range of industries and sectors, private, public and not-for-profit.

While many workplaces have embraced things like ‘R U OK Day’ and discussions around generalised depression and anxiety, it seems many are still vastly under-equipped to work with staff who have more complex mental health needs.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around two percent of the population have bipolar. This is a conversation we need to have.

More needs to be done to train and equip people managers and HR departments so that they create an environment where staff feel safe, comfortable and respected in having these conversations and disclosing if that is what they want to do.

I’m so thankful to have found a community of people with whom I can share the experiences of living with this condition.

In our support group we share our struggles together. But in our workplaces, we continue to struggle alone.

• Jarni Blakkarly is an investigative journalist based in Naarm/Melbourne. He is the winner of a Young Walkley Award and has been a finalist at the Melbourne Press Club’s Quill Awards. He was recently elected to serve on the Federal Council (media section) of the MEAA. You can find him @jarniblakkarly.

SBS response

Croakey invited SBS to comment. The statement below was provided:

“SBS’s first priority is always the safety and wellbeing of our employees.  

“SBS takes all appropriate and reasonable steps to safeguard the wellbeing of all our staff and, where possible and appropriate, to assist staff to return to work after personal hardships. 

“While individual cases of a staff member in distress always call for compassion and reasonable accommodations, employees are still required to adhere to SBS’s Code of Conduct and Social Media Protocol.”

Crisis supports

Lifeline provides free suicide and mental health crisis support for all Australians.
Phone: 13 11 14

13YARN is a crisis support line for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Available 24/7. No shame, no judgement, safe place to yarn.
Phone 13 92 76

Kids Helpline provides free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people between the ages of 5 and 25.
Phone: 1800 551 800

Beyond Blue provides free telephone and online counselling services 24/7 for everyone in Australia.
Phone: 1300 224 636

1800 RESPECT provides confidential sexual assault and family and domestic violence counselling via phone and webchat. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Phone: 1800 737 732


See Croakey’s archive of articles on mental health

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Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash