Friday, December 8, 2023

How Are You Today, Tova O’Brien: Her Mental Health Toolkit, Politics and Having to Put on a Brave Face During Tough Times

Tova O’Brien – the host of the fantastic new Stuff podcast ‘Tova’ – opens up about her own mental health journey and how she gets through tough times (especially when much of New Zealand is watching on!)

TW: Suicide is mentioned in this story

It’s far from being the first time I’ve started one of these interviews, asking ‘How are you today?’ and fairly quickly watched the person begin to cry. But, I have to admit, it still came as a bit of a surprise when I sat down over Zoom recently with political journalist Tova O’Brien and found her opening up so quickly, honestly and vulnerably.

Tova is someone I’ve long admired – she’s able to grill the trickiest of politicians and quickly break down their well-rehearsed PR-scripted answers. She’s someone many of us came to rely on during the Covid-19 pandemic, to deliver updates in a calm, steady fashion and ask the hard questions of our PM and MPs. Her career in the last three or so years has been a complete whirlwind – going from TV3, to Mediawork’s Today show (with a bit of controversy in between), then being made redundant, pretty much on live radio, before popping up again as Chief Political Correspondent at Stuff, where she now also has a podcast, named simply ‘Tova’.

It was my first time meeting Tova and when the call ended I promptly messaged the Capsule group chat we had raving about how incredible Tova is. She’s generous, warm, funny, thoughtful and whip-smart.

We chatted on the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week and the topic was top of mind for Tova. It coincided with a week when she held a heart-breaking, emotional interview with the parents of a young woman who had died by suspected suicide.

Here, we chat about mental health, those tough interviews, having to put on a brave face when the going gets tough, plus, one of her favourite topics: politics.

How are you today, Tova?

Um, honestly? I have been a bit teary today. I’ve been thinking a lot about an interview that we did this week for the podcast. It was with a couple who lost their teenage daughter to suspected suicide and it was just utterly distressing and devastating. But I’m also annoyed at myself because it doesn’t feel like it’s my place to be teary.

Then this morning, I read an article of yours actually, about a psychiatrist who’d written a book about helping parents get through the difficult teenage years, and I just keep thinking about the parents that don’t even get to that part, and I, I … wow, this is not how I was expecting to answer this question. 

Wow, no, I can see how upset this is making you, and to me that seems like a completely normal human response to witnessing someone’s extreme grief like you just have. 

I think also, it’s not an emotionally neutral process, doing those interviews, right? When you’re in it, you have to suck it up because you’ve got a job to do, but there’s always a moment after those stories, when it does hit you and stabs you in the heart. I find that it can be quite good just sitting there with it, as that’s part of the process too.

Definitely. What do you do after an emotionally exhausting interview? How do you take care of yourself?

Well, after that one, I went straight into an interview with the health minister! But, I think that was probably the best thing to do because it just focuses my mind on what we need to do there, and what Leanne and Gareth wanted for their daughter Maddie. They wanted her legacy to see change in the system – to make it better, to hopefully prevent something like this from happening again, or to better help young people with complex mental health needs. 

So, I’ve literally worked my way through it! I think too, I’m acutely aware that I have a job to do, which can help fortify you in those difficult moments.

Can that be a double-edged sword though too? That yes, in the moment you can be empathetic, but you’re there in a professional capacity, so perhaps can’t show all your emotions? Or would you be comfortable bursting into tears on TV in those moments?

I don’t like to, personally, because I don’t feel like – and again, this is my annoyance at myself for my reaction today – it’s not about us. 

You can help people understand the enormity of something, maybe explain some of those emotions, and while empathy is so important, for me, it’s their grief. I always feel very conscious of that – it’s their story and their grief, not mine.

Every journalist I know is a very empathetic person. I think empathetic people are drawn to the industry, because you want to tell stories and you want to be trusted to tell those stories and give people that voice and, hopefully effect positive change, if you can. So that becomes my touchstone when I do these stories. 

Now, I really only know you in a professional sense, but from what I’ve seen… heck, you’ve had a big few years. The start of that rollercoaster seemed to be the pandemic – you were one of the key faces of that time. A lot of Kiwis relied on you for their information back then as to what the heck was going on. All those daily briefings, the “Tova, then Jessica” or “Jessica, then Tova” calls the PM made each day. How does it feel now, looking back on that time?

I feel really grateful that I had a job. When everyone was locked down, I was one of the very lucky few who could get dressed every day, walk to work at Parliament, down Wellington’s waterfront with nobody around me.

The lockdowns were really straining on people, in many different ways, and so to have been able to have this job, and this purpose to do every day – my colleagues and I generally worked six or seven days a week through that whole thing – it really kept us sane during that time.

And despite the insane levels of vitriol that followed off the back of it, I just loved that people were so engaged. I was like, ‘finally they’re watching the pressers in the beehive theatrette’! That’s never happened before.

I took heart too that even though there was a lot of criticism, people did recognise that there’s a reason you have to ask those questions several times, because that’s how politicians speak and sometimes it takes a few chips away at that rock to actually get the answer from them. I just loved that people were engaged in the democratic process, and in politics and journalism and information. Everyone seemed just hungry for information, and I felt very lucky to be a part of helping disseminate that.

It sounds like an incredibly high-pressure time – particularly working with so few days off .

It was, but it was also the absolute height of my press gallery career – it was just the pinnacle. We had this story that was changing daily and we played such a fundamental role as journalists, in terms of relaying public messages into the Government to ensure that some of these anomalies were ironed out and made better sense.

And it was also 2020, we had an election campaign and we had a National Party political coup, so to be a political reporter in the mix of all these things, I think we were so high on adrenaline, politics  and journalism for a whole year, that yes, there was a bit of a hollowing out in 2021. I felt slightly bereft, because we’d been operating up here and then suddenly it was back to normal and trying to find out what normal was anymore.

Your adrenals must have taken a hammering.

Yeah, there was a period of just not getting excited by things, and I’m a very excitable person. I remember in 2021 finding it hard to fire up again. But it doesn’t take long, politics is always very exciting, to draw me back in.

Now, since the pandemic your career has only continued to ride this extreme rollercoaster ride. It’s something I’m sure you can’t really talk a lot about, but what’s something you’ve learned in the last year or two, going through all of that?

I think probably most women can empathise with this situation, where you’re having a tough time and having to put on a brave face and work, when all you want to do is put your pyjamas on and build a Netflix fort and order Uber Eats fried chicken – which is a fundamentally important part of a healing process!

I think that one thing I’ve learned is that it’s often easy to forget some of the fundamentals of self-care. I had a difficult time when I was a teenager and I had a great counsellor who taught me a lot of the things that would fortify me and the tools for life. I think sometimes that incremental slip into sadness can kind of sneak up on you, and you can forget some of those fundamentals.

For me, the big one, I kind of describe it as like building an exoskeleton around yourself if everything else is kind of falling apart. For me, that exoskeleton is like, family and friends and then you can kind of do those other fundamentals that you know are beneficial to mental health. So I think that’s been my big takeaway is just, wrapping yourself up with the people that love you and that you love, to get through the difficult bits.

“I think probably most women can empathise with this situation, where you’re having a tough time and having to put on a brave face and work, when all you want to do is put your pyjamas on and build a Netflix fort and order Uber Eats fried chicken”

God I love that. And now, we’re looking down the barrel of an election year. It seems to me that being a political reporter has never been tougher – perhaps in part thanks to the Trump administration. Now, journalists are often the target of vitriol, or in some cases, even violence. Have you experienced that? Or what do you make of

Yes, 100% and I know that newsrooms around the country, particularly during the election campaign are really heightened to it, and they’re doing a lot to ensure that the journalists and camera operators and crews and everyone is safe when they’re out on the job.

We’ve already seen a lot of disruptors on this campaign, and it really pisses me off actually because I’m such a big believer in protest, and so people who are just seeking to kind of shout down any views that aren’t their own, no matter the party, I think is a real indictment on democracy and that bit annoys me. But personally, I haven’t felt unsafe.

Do you ever read the comments section?

Former Labour MP Darren Hughes – we hung out a bit when I was living in London – he told me to never read the comments and it was some of the best advice anyone’s ever given me. So no, I don’t read the comments.

Sometimes I might have friends or loved ones alert me to particular things if I need to know, but I’m a big believer in taking advice and feedback and constructive criticism from the people that you care about and whose opinions you respect. I mean, I’m always open to it, but I’d rather hear it from my bosses, or my friends. If they tell me to pull my head in, I’m going to listen to that more than people with a string of numbers and letters after their names on Twitter.

What is it about politics that makes you love it so passionately?

There’s so much! I think it’s trite to say and often said, but you know, it’s all about people, being able to take their voices into the parliament and likewise help demystify and unpick and hold accountable what’s happening in the parliament for them. So there’s that kind of two way fundamental thing, which I see political reporting as being about.

And then it’s also just nuts. It’s so fun and surprising and challenging and it tests your brain and it tests your will.. It’s just being close to where some of those enormous decisions  are made that affect all of us – that’s quite addictive. And just being part of prosecuting that process as well.

One thing we’re hearing from Capsule readers a lot is that they’re going into this election feeling spent. They’re overwhelmed. They’re underwhelmed. They don’t know who to vote for and there’s a lot of apathy happening. How do we pick ourselves up if we’re in that situation and work out what to do and who to vote for?

Yeah, y’know, I think your question answers itself, because all of those things that are making us feel that way – and I totally get it, it has been a hard few years – those are the reasons we need to vote because how we vote, can (if we believe in the system!) make our lives better, make the lives of our families better and make life better for Kiwis. Aligning your values and beliefs in what policies are going to make the country a better place. So all of those feelings that you’re feeling are why you need to vote!

For me it’s policies and values alignment – and I’m a swing voter. I wait until the day, because I love the ceremony of election day and I love the quiet of it after all of the madness. I get that there’s apathy out there, but just give it a moment to cast your eyes over the core policies and what you think will make the country a better place.

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