Coming up in my particular neighborhood in Little Rock, Ark., one of my dearest childhood friends was a boy we nicknamed something unflattering but — except for the meanest among us kids — treated with great kindness. He was “just slow,” we said, and left it at that.
The armchair analyst in me concluded, when we were teens, that my friend was mildly retarded (in the vernacular of that time). He also suffered sometimes-paralyzing bouts of depression. All these decades later, he remains a beloved treasure. I call him brother. He’s still a fixture in our hometown neighborhood, self-medicating with weed and, sometimes, crack. He’s snaggle-toothed, his skin an ashen gray. He looks way older than the rest of us. People with chronic, severe mental illness tend to die earlier than the rest of us.
I do not imagine that my friend has ever seen a mental health clinician. I have never asked. But his lifelong struggle with mental illness — and the struggles of 20- through 70-something (and older) armed services veterans I met as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow reporting on mental health courts and a pioneering prison/jail programs for veterans diagnosed with mental illness — are high on my reporter’s radar. Much of my journalism, including my earlier years of covering schools and statehouse politics and such, has explored the lives of folks on the fringes. And the myriad persons grappling with mental illness — acute or chronic, diagnosed and not, well-managed medically and not — inhabit universes within universes within universes. This is an utterly, effusively, critically important topic. As AHCJ’s new core topic leader on mental and behavioral health, I am glad to have some small part in expanding news coverage of this sphere, and to learn what I can from my colleagues’ coverage.
Though I still see myself as something of a generalist health reporter, tackling an array of non-mental health topics, I have spent considerable time covering such topics as the arguably needless expansion of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the question of whether, as a society, we’re over-medicating mental illnesses. My roster of mental health news sources is solid and growing; some of them have gladly joined panels on mental health that I have organized for AHCJ annual conferences. In addition to patients, researchers, advocates, critics, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other clinicians, my source list includes health care executives, consultants and other strategists steering efforts to expand mental health services and, in keeping with Affordable Care Act guidance, lend them the same weight and urgency as all other health services. The mental health expansion, itself, has been a fits-and-starts endeavor and is far from the goals set forth in Obamacare.
Also, I’ve coordinated national journalism fellowships on correctional health/mental health care and as a contributing editor for the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York, the nation’s premier criminal justice academy. (ACA provisions for prisons, jails and re-entry programs; care for the incarcerated mentally ill; and the neurological, behavioral and physiological health effects of solitary confinement were topics for three of those fellowships.) Leading those fellowships involves identifying journalists reporting about mental health; gathering expert speakers for conferences launching those fellowships; providing fellows with studies, needed experts and other ongoing resources for their fellowship reporting projects; scheduling and moderating webinars on critical mental health and health issues.
In addition to looking at mental health among all peoples, I’m interested in how place, race, income, access, personal habits, et cetera, and systemic health care disparities —factor into mental illness, wellness, care, recovery. (Though, indeed, some argue that there’s no such thing as “recovery” from certain/chronic mental illnesses, and shun that term.)