About AHCJ: General News

Urban Workshop keynote puts focus on mental health Date: 11/01/08

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez' moving stories about his relationship with a mentally ill street musician helped illuminate the often forgotten illness of schizophrenia and the plight of the homeless living on skid row.

But his columns, which led to a book and a soon-to-be released motion picture called "The Soloist," did more than that. They inspired him to continue working as a journalist - a craft he has practiced for more than 25 years.

Steve LopezSteve Lopez

Lopez described his personal and professional journey in a keynote talk at AHCJ's second annual Urban Health Journalism Workshop in New York in October, reminding attendees why they became reporters and writers and the power they have to change lives.

"This was not a policy story, it was a human story," Lopez told an audience at The New York Times building. His address kicked off the day-and-a-half conference, which was hosted by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in midtown Manhattan.

The workshop drew about 130 journalists and health experts with offerings that included a field trip to school-based health centers in the Bronx that serve students and their families and an opportunity to tune up Excel spreadsheet skills.

Panel topics included hospital finances, the impact of violence on neighborhoods, evaluating health care by ZIP code, childhood asthma, strains on hospital emergency departments and the condition of health care in prisons and jails.

Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist since 2001 who formerly worked at Time and The Philadelphia Inquirer, discovered Nathaniel Ayers by chance while on an assignment that took him to a Los Angeles subway station. He heard Ayers' violin and stopped for a closer look. On a return visit, he learned the homeless man was a Julliard School-trained musician.

Lopez became intimately involved in Ayers' life. He spent a night with Ayers on skid row. He took him to a baseball game. He helped persuade Ayers to move into an apartment subsidized by a nonprofi t mental health agency. He invited Ayers to meet his family and took him to visit the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Ayers met Yo-Yo Ma, who had been his classmate at Julliard.

Lopez said one of the lessons of his experience was "noticing the obvious." He said the stories about the man and their personal relationship resonated with readers because they realized, "there but for the grace of God go I."

Audio presentations of the sessions are posted on AHCJ's Web site, along with resources for reporting on urban health issues.

In addition to CUNY, sponsors included the Montefiore Medical Center, New York State Health Foundation, The New York Times, Th e Commonwealth Fund and the Center for Home Care Policy and Research, VNSNY.