hello world!


During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Nada Rashwan was in her final year of university studying Commerce. She didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation, but by the 18th day of protests, when then President Husni Mubarak announced that he was stepping down, she decided to become a journalist. Today, after 13 years of working with Al Ahram, the BBC and The New York Times, Nada decided it was time to take a break and pursue an academic fellowship in the US. In this candid interview, the MCJN member opens up about her mental health struggles and offers a few words of caution to journalists running the risk of burnout.

The conversation has been edited for clarity


How did you start your career in journalism? 

I started as an intern for Ahram Online, the English-language website of the Al Ahram Institution. I loved the atmosphere, the job, and the team. That was a very rich time in the country's history. There were protests every day, there was so much to work on. It was the best start to a journalism career. 

My first byline was a story about reforming Maspero, the Egyptian national media institution. We were in the golden era of media freedom and there were a lot of questions about this huge public institution. 

I was in disbelief when I read my byline because I didn't think I would get this far. I still feel the same way about my bylines.


No matter how much experience you have, or how well you know English, you're never considered a team member. You’re always considered an assistant. 

Take us back to your big career break

I think it was when I joined The New York Times, and started working with their foreign correspondent. We spent weeks working on an investigative story about a former military officer who was running a covert social media campaign. He had recruited Sudanese refugees to post tweets in order to sway public opinion in favour of the military. When the story came out, that officer couldn't continue his campaign and completely went off social media.

Although it was a milestone in my career, to have my name appear in The New York Times, it wasn't the breakthrough I had hoped for because I was working in the shadow of a foreign reporter. I would like to think that my big break has not happened yet and that the best is yet to come.


What do you mean when you say you were working in the shadow of the foreign correspondent?

These jobs are designed for the local reporter to guide the foreign correspondent through the local culture, how to deal with people, and how to critically think about what they hear from sources. It's designed to be a team effort, but you're never considered an equal. No matter how much experience you have, how well you speak and write in English, you're never considered a team member in the eyes of management, you're always considered an assistant. 

When you work with international media platforms, the story is drawn up in such a way that it becomes very hard to bring any sort of nuance. Although editors encourage you to be creative and suggest new angles to a story, on many occasions the same story ends up being repeated by different outlets, just written slightly differently.


Do you worry about your safety sometimes? 

I do to varying degrees. The moment after my byline comes out is when I fear the most. In Egypt, the level of surveillance is huge. Phones are tapped, and they read every word you write in the media. If you work for foreign media and you're out there with your name and your picture, they can't confuse you with anyone else.


Do you feel that you have to censor yourself, and does this interrupt your work? 

Of course. When you think about stories, you know where the red lines are. You know there are topics you can't cover because you're going to get into trouble. There are ideas that I wonder if I'll ever get to work on in my lifetime. I hope someone else does, maybe a few generations down the line. 

When you think about stories, you know where the red lines are. There are ideas that I wonder if I'll ever get to work on in my lifetime


Are there certain stories you remember working on that took a toll on your well-being? 

On 13th August 2013, I was at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, interviewing people who were protesting the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi. The next day, the police force used lethal force to disperse them in what became known as the “Rabaa Massacre”. Watching the carnage was a traumatic experience for me, having interviewed the people there only 24 hours before. I didn't leave my house for two or three weeks. I was only 23 years old at the time, and I didn’t have any coping techniques.

And I will never forget covering the verdict in the 2013 Port Said case, where members of the Ultras Port Said club were sentenced to death for the murder of 74 fans from Ahly Club in a football match. I was standing outside the gate of the sports club, waiting for the verdict along with supporters of the victims. When the verdict was announced, they all erupted in cheers. At the same time, I was reading news that in Port Said the families of the accused were screaming when they heard the death sentence. Standing there witnessing both sides screaming but for different reasons was an unnerving experience, especially because there were allegations that the government was somehow involved in the incident and that some of those who were condemned to death were not guilty. At that moment, I didn’t know right from wrong.


Did you ever seek mental health counseling? 

I did. Therapy has been a part of my life for almost ten years, and it was a revelation to understand how much my job was affecting my psychological health. It opened my eyes to the amount of pain that I was absorbing, and how much anger I was harbouring. My personal feelings about the events were depleting my energy. Therapy helped me learn how to feel pleasure again and to live, while knowing that so much around us is wrong. 


Did you receive any support from your editors or colleagues? 

In 2016, thanks to the support of my editors,  the BBC office in Cairo, where I was working at the time, gave me a paid sick leave to look after my mental health. I believe this was the first time the BBC office granted such a leave.

I was doing shift work with BBC Monitoring, which tracks and summarises and analyses media coverage of major stories around the globe. I had to wake up at different times for my shifts. The earliest shift would start at 6 am, so I had to wake up at 5 am. This brought my mental health to a breaking point because I couldn't regulate my sleep.

There was a speech by the Egyptian president, Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, and I had to listen to every word he was saying to transcribe the speech. I couldn’t suppress my anger. Everyone I had interviewed since he came to power knows someone who died in Rabaa Square or went to jail. My friends have friends in jail, and I'm always one or two degrees away from someone who's in prison. I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up from my desk and I started yelling because of his speech, and the pretense that no atrocities were happening around us. I had never experienced such an emotional outburst before.

My editors helped me get a four-week sick leave, which was based on a recommendation from my therapist. It was the first time the BBC in Cairo recognised the harmful impact our work had on psychological health. 

Therapy has been a part of my life for almost ten years. It’s been a revelation to understand how much my job was affecting my psychological health

At what point did you decide that you need to take a break from journalism? 

The war on Gaza made me realise for a fact that I cannot function anymore. The cumulative effect of everything I've gone through led to a point where I literally cannot look at the news. 

Palestine was the most intense story that I ever worked on. I’ve always been invested in covering and following what’s been happening there. So to get to a point where I cannot handle reading news or videos from there, and can no longer absorb the information, was the clearest sign that I should stop. 


Do you intend to return to journalism after the fellowship? 

Yes, most probably after the fellowship. But I intend to stay away from hard news reporting. Maybe I will move into documentaries, or start a new media project, something other than traditional journalism. I would never abandon the profession, but I could experience different roles.


What advice would you give to journalists to mitigate the impact of their work on their mental health?

It’s important to build a fulfilling life outside of work, connecting with friends and family and exercising regularly. These are the things that really helped me. I love weightlifting! It is also important to have access to therapy. It’s invaluable. It’s the reason I no longer think of work as the only source of fulfillment and self-worth. If you’ve been prescribed medication, then I think you shouldn’t hesitate to try it. It saved my life on more than one occasion and it helped me regain functionality and some capacity for joy.