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When Writing About Mental Health, Approach the Topic With an Open Mind When Writing About Mental Health, Approach the Topic With an Open Mind

TEAM Up asks journalists and entertainment writers for the inside scoop on their powerful and responsibly told stories of people dealing with mental health issues.

By Georgia Perry

I decided to write "Busting the Mental Illness Myths” for Santa Cruz Weekly after two Santa Cruz, Calif., police detectives were shot and killed in February 2013. The alleged gunman, Jeremy Goulet, was killed during a gunfight with police; while Goulet had never received a formal diagnosis of mental health issues, rumors quickly spread that he was “off his meds” and “needed to be locked up in a mental ward."

At best, these statements seemed shockingly simplistic; at worst, it appeared that those with mental health challenges had wrongly become a scapegoat for public safety issues. This was the first time in the city’s history that police officers had been killed in the line of duty, and the entire community was devastated. When I wrote my article I had two goals in mind: to give readers a more nuanced look at those with mental health challenges and to affect how they viewed this topic.

I had been interested in the issue for a while. Several months previously, I had attended a forum where the head of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Carol Williamson, spoke about misconceptions around mental illness. That led to a conversation with my editor about a possible feature story on mental health. After the shootings, we both felt that the time was right.

When I spoke with her for my story, Williamson said she began working for NAMI after her son, a young man with bipolar disorder, took his own life. I was amazed at her openness, and quickly learned that most everyone who has experienced mental health challenges or is close to someone who has faced such difficulties has an equally compelling story.

Through Williamson, I met Sarah Leonard, the director of the local Mental Health Client Action Network. Leonard ran away from home when she was a teenager, and over the years she has been diagnosed with several mental health challenges. I told her that I was writing about mental health resources in the area and some of the misconceptions that the community has about mental health. I met her and a few of her colleagues at a local restaurant, where over eggs and coffee we talked about their mental health challenges. They were a little shy and skeptical of me at first, with good reason: It can be frightening to talk to someone who is writing about you and might represent your story in an inaccurate or sensational way.

While I don’t usually talk about myself during interviews, in this case I shared a relevant experience from my past to help make the group more comfortable. After I graduated from college I had what is called a "major depressive episode": For the better part of a year, I broke down in uncontrollable sobbing fits several times a day, slept well into the afternoon, and generally felt lost and hopeless. Eventually, I got help from some good therapists, and I took an antidepressant for a couple of years. Still, the experience was terrifying. I was convinced that I would have to give up all of my hopes and dreams and live in a mental health facility, making treatment my priority.

After I told my story, the group opened up. Leonard said she refuses to let her diagnoses define her. "I’m a diagnosed schizophrenic. I'm also bipolar, OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] and other things," she said. "Anyway, the fact is I’m a homeowner. I work two jobs. I'm not scary."

Others talked about the different types of treatment they have received to deal with their challenges. Some, with the help of an advocate, were linked to helpful county services. Others have seen a physician and now take medication. Many have found comfort in talking to others with similar issues. The Mental Health Client Action Network offers classes, counseling and opportunities to share with others.

My advice for anyone writing about mental health is to approach the topic with an open mind. I like to think that most journalists are earnest in their reporting and treat their subjects with respect, but I suspect there some who make jokes about people being "off their meds" and think that those with mental health challenges are “weird” or not "normal." I urge every journalist to refrain from judgment when reporting on these issues; you’ll get better stories, and your readers or viewers will get a clearer—and more compassionate—understanding of the world.

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Reporter Shares Personal Story of Mental Illness to “Shine a Light on Those Who Are Hidden” Reporter Shares Personal Story of Mental Illness to “Shine a Light on Those Who Are Hidden”

By Jeremy Hay

It seemed like a good idea until late Saturday night. The newspaper where I work as a reporter was about to publish my essay about living with bipolar disorder in its Sunday edition. I lay awake and wondered: What was I thinking when I decided to do this? What I had been thinking, in the days after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, was that often it is only after acts of terrible, senseless violence—including high-profile suicides—that people identified as having a mental illness appear in the media, enter the national consciousness or live in the public eye.

What I came to believe in the weeks after the tragedy at Sandy Hook was that only by understanding mental illness more fully, and by knowing people with mental illnesses more completely, can we have a genuinely helpful discussion about mental illness and how to prevent it from spiraling into violence.

Inevitably, if that conversation is to happen, it will be in the media. Therefore, my responsibility, as a journalist who also happens to have bipolar disorder, seemed clear: I should use my somewhat public status to contribute to the discussion.

I had an opportunity to share my perspective and experience to flesh out a portrait of people who are mentally ill. I wanted to do that in a way that punctured some myths, established some facts and lent some dimension to people who are often labeled as bipolar, schizophrenic and depressed only after they have taken their own lives or the lives of others.

When I approached my executive editor and editorial director with the idea, they expressed some misgivings. Primarily, they worried that backlash would damage me personally, since as a reporter I am in a quasi-public position and vulnerable to public attacks or ridicule in our newspaper’s comment sections. They were otherwise supportive, though, and left it up to me. I started writing.

I spent weeks on the essay, trying to stay on the right side of the line between turning into a “Jerry Springer” guest and sharing my personal history in an educational and useful way. I had to restrain the urge to prove the severity of my bipolar disorder by trotting out the worst experiences my illness had led me into.

But my worries were in full sail that Saturday night. Would the essay cost me credibility, both among readers and sources and also, in some way, among my colleagues? Who would want to deal with a reporter who is mentally ill? Who would trust one? Would I be able to cover a story involving mental illness without a reader or colleague questioning my objectivity? Alternatively, would I be looked to in the newsroom as the resident expert on mental illness? That was also a real fear, because I am not.

The essay—some 50 inches long—resulted in dozens of comments online and more than 100 emails (which still arrive on occasion). My voice mail was full, and the piece generated a generous clutch of letters to the editor. None were negative, critical or disparaging. Most were from people I did not know. They were divided about evenly between people commending me for revealing myself and speaking to a pressing and much-hidden issue, and people thanking me for articulating their own struggles or those of people they loved. Sources too thanked or commended me. The great majority of my colleagues did the same; I found the silence of those few who said nothing somehow reassuring: My mental illness was nothing to be remarked on (or they had not read the paper that day).

My voice mail was full, and the piece generated a generous clutch of letters to the editor. None were negative, critical or disparaging.

It’s been just over a year since my essay was published. The adrenaline rush it produced and the buzz it caused have receded, but I believe writing it accomplished at least some of what I intended. I’ve been asked to speak about mental illness at service clubs and lecture at my local community college (and I make a point of saying that mental health is my subject too). I believe most people know and at the same time forget that I have bipolar disorder. And isn’t that the point? People in the newsroom and community know me as my family does, as a person like any other, and only second, or perhaps even third or fourth or fifth, as someone who has a mental illness.

Finally, because to me this is as much about the health and stability of people with mental illness as informing the general public, I am certain that writing and having the essay published has had a profound effect on me. It is difficult to describe, but I feel calmer and on more solid ground, perhaps from being less “undercover,” and also more accomplished in my profession. Yes, this has to do with my finding an effective course of treatment. But I think, perhaps, it also stems from having helped in some small way to fulfill journalism’s mission: to hold up a mirror to society and shine a light on those who are hidden.

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Court Helps Violinist Tackle Mental Illness and She Makes Music Again Court Helps Violinist Tackle Mental Illness and She Makes Music Again

TEAM Up asks journalists and entertainment writers for the inside scoop on their powerful and responsibly told stories of people dealing with mental health issues.

By Lee Romney

SAN FRANCISCO—Kim Knoble’s story was in some ways typical: A loving childhood and supportive family. The onset of severe mental illness. The roller coaster of despair, denial, recovery, relapse, addiction, sometimes homelessness. And finally, a crime.

As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I had written some version of this tale a number of times since I began covering mental health issues in 2005, and I had heard many similar accounts—that never saw print—from distraught relatives of loved ones battling mental illness.

Often, their sons or daughters did not get help or stick with treatment before tragedy struck. Some were victimized. Some died. Others landed in the criminal justice or state mental hospital system, where they finally got treatment, sometimes against their will. I spoke to many such patients when covering the hospital system.

Institutionalization brought stigma and a criminal history. Though it often brought some form of consistent treatment, it also might subject vulnerable people to physical assaults and other abuse from fellow patients. Release was frequently followed by a repeat of the same traumatic situations and events that had led to the initial criminal charges—drug and alcohol abuse without treatment, and unstable housing, for example.

This revolving-door story was difficult to cover. It felt hopeless, and the elements were too often the same. In 2007, however, I was introduced to San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court. In contrast to many other such mental health courts sprouting across the country, this one did not shy away from violent offenders, as long as the crime was directly tied to mental illness.

When I visited the court, I saw how an elaborate support network—of housing, drug treatment, group counseling and medication management—under the guidance of a firm yet caring judge gave participants a fighting chance to stabilize and even thrive. (Although many mental health advocates believe that such intensive services should be available to those with severe mental illness before they commit a crime, others point out that those in the throes of such illness are often unable to recognize that they are sick, and therefore reject treatment or fail to stick with it. The prospect of incarceration provides a very real incentive for them to accept treatment through behavioral health courts.)

By 2010, studies were affirming the success of such courts, and San Francisco’s was a standout. I reported on the trend: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/25/local/la-me-mental-court-20101025.

The sources I had developed with San Francisco’s court paid off. Among them was Jennifer Johnson, a deputy public defender who helped build the program from the ground up. Last fall, as Johnson prepared for the court’s 10th anniversary celebration, she turned to me to write the story of a gifted young woman who had been transformed under the court’s guidance.

Finally, I had an opportunity to write something about the system that worked, about somebody who had evaded prison or worse to reconnect with her true self.

Kim was raised in Marin County by loving parents who were artists. She took up the violin as a young girl and excelled. By high school she was playing with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, while doubling as concertmaster of its Marin counterpart. She won a music scholarship to the University of California, Irvine, where she experienced her first mental health struggles. Kim had bouts of delusion and paranoia. She attempted suicide.

Back home, over the next decade, she said, she struggled with addiction to crack and meth and wound up homeless for a time, wandering San Francisco’s Tenderloin in her socks. She would take medication for stretches, then stop. She was in and out of drug treatment. Her parents had been unable to help her, though they had tried repeatedly. They feared she would die, and were strained by the grief and stress of witnessing her self-destruction.

Then, in 2011, off her medication and agitated, Kim pushed an elderly man on a bus in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He fell out the open door and was injured. She was facing prison time for assault when her public defender told her about the Behavioral Health Court. Her diagnosis was adjusted. On a more effective medication cocktail, with housing, group counseling, drug treatment and steady support, she regained her balance.

What she was missing was music. In the fall of 2012, Kim’s stepfather contacted a nonprofit organization that worked with those dealing with mental illness to see if anyone had a violin to spare. The executive director put the word out, and the query spread through San Francisco’s relatively small music community. When Kim’s story of struggle and success made it to David Chiu, chairman of the San Francisco board of supervisors and a violinist himself, he contacted the San Francisco Symphony, which bought an instrument for her.

Kim’s improved health became evident, not just in her words but through her music. At a court anniversary event, she would perform solo, playing Jules Massenet’s “Meditation” from “Thais.”

Her story is one that many families who have never experienced mental illness can relate to. Kim had a stable childhood—with violin lessons, the love of her parents and siblings, and a college scholarship. As awful as it is to say, she was palatable to the public in that way, though of course no more worthy than those born to abuse and poverty. I knew that many people who often turn away from stories of despair and illness (and even recovery) would open their ears and hearts to Kim. And they did. Her story was picked up around the country, and blogged by a number of mental health organizations. NBC News followed it. Emails flowed in from readers.

Kim is articulate and frank about her disease, her past and her present. She has pledged to tell her story widely, to combat the stigma and shame that shadowed her for so many years.

Lee Romney covers Bay Area and Northern California news for the Los Angeles Times’ San Francisco Bureau. She began reporting on California’s state mental hospitals in 2005 and has remained committed to telling stories about those dealing with mental illness and the mental health system. Lee started at the L.A. Times in 1992. She has a master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Read her coverage:
Mental health court helps save a troubled talent from the street

A journey from mental illness to music and a standing ovation

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Asian-American Students and Depression Asian-American Students and Depression

TEAM Up asks journalists and entertainment writers for the inside scoop on their powerful and responsibly told stories of people dealing with mental health issues.

By Katherine Kam

SAN FRANCISCO—When I read about the suicides of three students of Asian descent at the California Institute of Technology in 2009, I was shocked by the loss of such gifted young men. But I also questioned the lack of in-depth stories about the problems of depression and suicide in Asian-American students. It’s not an easy topic to address, but it seemed timely. For several years, I had seen headlines about suicides of Asian-American students in other parts of the country, but after initial stories about the deaths, coverage would fall off. It was hard to find analysis of the mental health issues and the role that culture plays in Asian-Americans’ understanding of mental illness, including depression. As I would find out, culture influences people’s willingness to seek help when they’re struggling psychologically.

I received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism for 2012–2013, a gift that allowed me to lead a large project on depression and suicide among Asian-American teens and college students. A longtime health reporter, I started by searching the academic literature, which was plentiful, but little had made it into the media. After gathering statistics and background information, I traveled to various parts of the country to interview mental health professionals, college students, parents of teens with depression and other sources. I discovered that many Asian-Americans don’t understand the symptoms of depression, or worry about losing face if they tell anyone about their problems. But I was extremely fortunate to find two mothers who talked movingly about their child’s depression or suicide. They were passionate about urging other Asian-American families to seek help because it might save a young person’s life.

I discovered that many Asian-Americans don’t understand the symptoms of depression, or worry about losing face if they tell anyone about their problems.

In September 2013, my three-part series was published in New America Media and multiple ethnic news outlets. The stories ran in English, but some of the pieces were also translated into Chinese and Korean. I’ve gotten positive emails from many Asian-Americans, who often told me that the stories felt genuine to them. Some Asian-American organizations and mental health advocacy groups have also featured the series on their websites. I’m grateful for the strong interest and have already begun pursuing several new stories on mental health among Asian-Americans.

Katherine Kam is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She specializes in reporting on health and medicine for national publications. In 2012, she received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism to write about mental health in Asian-American students. Read her coverage:

Cultural Stigma Hurts Asian American Teens with Depression

A Psychological Lifeline for Asian American Teens

On Some College Campuses, a Focus on Asian American Mental Health

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A Journalist Volunteers at a Crisis Hotline A Journalist Volunteers at a Crisis Hotline

TEAM Up asks journalists and entertainment writers for the inside scoop on their powerful and responsibly told stories of people dealing with mental health issues.

By Anonymous

Whenever I work four-hour shifts as a volunteer at a nearby crisis and suicide hotline, I tap into a vein of rich experience—one that I wish other journalists knew about. Every year, the hotline receives tens of thousands of calls from people who are struggling with a variety of mental illnesses or emotional crises. The calls reflect so many of the challenges that permeate daily life, but that often go unspoken or unseen: depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, paranoia, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, relationship troubles, job or financial problems, loneliness, and—most difficult of all—callers’ desire to end their emotional pain by taking their lives.

Like most journalists, I had never thought about working on a crisis hotline. It happened by chance. A few years ago, when I called hotline staff members to discuss story ideas about mental health, they invited me to volunteer. What I received in return was a powerful education about mental illness, deeper than any book or course or training seminar could provide.

In my role as a reporter, I find that by the time I interview them, people have distanced themselves about what they’ve been through with their mental illness. For example, if they are no longer in the midst of a severe depression, they’ll recount their experience in more factual tones.

But on the crisis lines, I’m talking to people at the very moment that they’re experiencing the effects of their illness. I’ve come to understand more viscerally how many people live with mental illness and how much it can alter a life: the severe depression that makes it hard for a caller to get out of bed, the terrified voice of a person who has panic attacks, the profound despair of someone who is imminently suicidal.

Not every shift is easy; a few are wrenching. But I always leave with a feeling that the time was well-spent. As I try to help callers, they are also helping me. They have let me into their lives on the deepest levels, and many have taught me a great deal not only about their struggles, but also their resilience, hopes and goals for recovery. Callers tell volunteers about their good days, too: the support of a parent who genuinely loves them, the thankfulness that they feel when the hotline has helped them through a difficult period.

They have let me into their lives on the deepest levels, and many have taught me a great deal not only about their struggles, but also their resilience, hopes and goals for recovery.

Although volunteering at a crisis line may sound grim, it’s not. The other volunteers, many who are training to become psychologists, are astute and caring. Not only have I learned by watching their examples how to work with callers, but they’ve also raised my awareness of the stigmatizing attitudes that society and the media often display toward people with mental illness. I’ve come to understand that when journalists cover people who live with mental disorders, we have a serious responsibility to do so with accuracy, fairness and respect.

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