Overcoming cautious officials to tell stories of mental illness

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Many of you will already be familiar with “Mental Breakdown,” the CHCF Center for Health Reporting and Modesto Bee joint effort to illustrate the impact state and county budget cuts have had on people in California diagnosed with mental illnesses. One of the series’ most striking components is multimedia specialist Lauren M. Whaley’s “Faces of Mental Illness,” one of the Bee‘s most-viewed photo galleries of all time. A gallery which, Whaley writes in a must-read post on her blog, “almost didn’t happen.”

screen-shot-2012-06-09-at-62544-pmThe gallery was made up of portraits of men and women from the Stanislaus, Calif., chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, all of whom, Whaley writes were eager to pose, “enthused by the possibility of showing that mentally ill people were regular people, people who could hold jobs, go to school, parent and teach.”

Everything was ready to go, until someone noticed her setup. Every health journalist will be able to guess what happens next.

The county nurse insisted that we call her higher-ups to get permission to take the portraits. She was nervous we were violating a confidentiality agreement that I didn’t know existed.

I needed to get permission to get the participants’ permission.

The implication: These people are incapable of consenting.

Fortunately, thanks to her contacts and editor, this particular showdown had a happy ending.

My editor smoothed things over with the county. We typed up a permission slip so each person I photographed put down in writing that they knew we would publish their portrait in the Modesto Bee and online. They were all perfectly comfortable with the permission slip. They just wanted to know when the story would run. They wanted to know when their pictures would be in the paper, when their story would be told.

And, for a nifty postscript, don’t miss the story’s comment section, where a NAMI official named in the post checks in from her Facebook account to say that she hopes it will help folks “understand how frustrating it is for family members who find it difficult to communicate with mental health professionals.”

Normalizing Mental Illness: One mom’s hope from CAhealthReport on Vimeo.

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