January 3, 2013

When I looked at the state of reporting on mental-health issues after the Newtown, Conn., shootings, I saw a forbidding landscape. John Head sees improvement. When he started reporting on mental health for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the turn of the century, a diagnosis or even a suggestion that a violent person was mentally ill “was end of story,” he said in a telephone interview. “That explained it.”

John Head

But after some news outlets reported that shooter Adam Lanza may have had Asperger’s syndrome, Head said, “I’ve also seen things like reporting that the mother might have been trying to get him committed. I’ve seen in most cases people follow up. I’ve also seen a lot of reporting about how difficult it is for a family, or in this case a single mother, to deal with a child who is suffering.”

And in fact one of the most-talked-about analyses that followed Newtown was written by a woman whose son has extremely challenging behavioral issues. Liza Long’s provocatively titled essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” has spawned lots of responses, from a psychiatrist, from a parenting blogger, from Hanna Rosin.

That kind of conversation is an improvement, NPR science reporter Jon Hamilton said: “Virginia Tech, Columbine — in every one of these instances there’s been some talk about mental health issues. I think what’s happened is the experts and advocacy groups have realized it’s a given it’s gonna come out and you should get out in front.”

Even on the Internet, more well-composed opinion pieces are always welcome. But what about beat reporting? Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Kissinger does big, important investigations into mental health in Wisconsin.

Meg Kissinger

“I do projects,” she said. “I’m not doing a daily bird-dogging of the budget.” Kissinger said a lot of the problems that hamper coverage of mental health at other news outlets — “holy cow, is it a grim topic,” she said — aren’t present at the Journal Sentinel: “To me this is outrageous how easy this is,” she said, crediting Managing Editor George Stanley’s interest.

The Journal Sentinel’s “Imminent Danger” series is a tour de force of local mental health reporting, looking at how a 1972 ruling made it harder for families to commit mentally ill people. “By correcting one outrage,” Kissinger wrote, the case of Milwaukee resident Alberta Lessard “had created others.” The online package for “Imminent Danger” includes photos, videos, links to related content and a plea Kissinger wrote in late December for a holistic approach to addressing mental health in the U.S.

“I tell the everyday tales when I can,” Kissinger said. But her focus is on higher impact tales that might move the needle locally, like a 2006 series on squalid housing conditions for mentally ill people.

Jon Hamilton

NPR’s Hamilton said mental health advocates are, not surprisingly, among the most vocal consumers of news on the subject. Progress on mental health research is so slow, he said, that “anytime you start reporting on something that really seems to be an advance, the response is huge.”

Stories about depression — a condition that nearly 10 percent of Americans report — bring huge traffic, Hamilton said, and the autism community got in touch very quickly after reports that Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

The ensuing coverage, Hamilton said, was mostly knocking down the idea that there was any connection between Asperger’s and violence. “I have not seen wild accounts, I haven’t seen a lot of headlines saying autism can explain the shooting. I think the media in this case, they’ve been pretty good,” he said.

“You piss them off sometimes,” Kissinger said about advocates. “It’s funny, because it comes around and then they love you, so I always think a nice balance is when they’re mad at you one day and they love you the next. You don’t wanna be carrying anybody’s water for too long. My responsibility isn’t to the mental health advocates, it really is to the story.”

When he was at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, John Head infuriated plenty of readers with an article suggesting racism was a form of mental illness, he said. He left the paper after he received a fellowship from the Carter Center to look at mental health care among minorities.

Gail Rosenblum

After the resultant book came out, he said, he started talking about his own experience of depression. “When I was reporting on mental health I never put myself into the story,” he said. “I can’t believe that I’m the only reporter writing about mental illness or mental health with a family background,” said Kissinger, who lost a brother and a sister to suicide.

“The truth is we walk through life with people who have mental health issues and are dealing with it well,” said Gail Rosenblum, who frequently uses her columnist perch at the Minneapolis Star Tribune to “bust myths” about mental health. Some readers and editors may shy away from mental health stories because they’re scared, she said (“this is not a cuddly cute crowd,” Kissinger said). But “that’s the thing,” said Rosenblum: “We do know those people.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
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