Mental Health Media Blog

Featured Fellow

Laura Starecheski

How has your career developed since the beginning of your fellowship?

The Carter Fellowship gave me a great excuse to dig for mental health stories all across the United States.  At NPR’s State of the Re:Union, we report hour-long radio documentaries about one place in America at a time, from Birmingham, Alabama to Laramie, Wyoming and many places in between.  My fellowship project focused specifically on mental health stories in rural America.  The goal was to track down leaders and innovators in small towns and far-flung counties.  I ended honing in on “peer services”– people with lived experience of mental illness or addiction supporting each other, informally or in a professional (employed) capacity.  During my fellowship year, I traveled to the Missouri Ozarks, small-town Vermont, the outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida, just to name a few places.  I met people with lived experience of mental illness taking the lead in conversations with state legislators to transform state-wide mental health care in Vermont; combat veterans carving out a place for healing on a veteran-run farm in Florida; a Missouri man who’d physically abused his wife for years finding a way to “get sober from anger and violence” and stop the cycle of abuse. He wanted to spend his life passing on his message to other men in his community. 

Doing these stories gave me a broader definition for reporting on mental health.  I now see mental health in stories of domestic violence, rural poverty and unemployment, among veterans or in any community.  This year, I am a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan.  This fellowship is a sabbatical year for mid-career journalists to step away from their regular reporting duties and explore.  I’m investigating the experiences of people who have committed violent crimes, and how their crimes affect them and their families.  The flexibility of the Carter Center’s Mental Health program in drawing connections between mental health, diagnosis, social conditions, economics, culture and behavior gave me a foundation to do a larger scale investigation like this one.

 

What guidance would you impart on burgeoning journalists entering the field with an interest in mental health reporting?

Talk to people with lived experience of mental illness.  Talk to their families, friends, health care providers if possible: we all live in networks of care, responsibility, support. Mental illness affects whole families and communities, not just the individuals who get a diagnosis or experience symptoms.  Follow the lead of people with lived experience in how to speak about their symptoms and diagnoses– some people identify strongly with a diagnosis, seeing it as a “key” that unlocked their understanding of themselves; others will see a diagnosis as a harmful label.  Allow for this spectrum of experience in your reporting.  Be persistent.  It can be difficult to find people who are willing to speak openly, but they are out there.  Finally, be clear about what you are doing and what your goals are with your story.  You could be talking to people who are vulnerable, in crisis, and/or with limited support networks.  Check in often about your timeline, follow through and show up when you say you are going to, and be transparent from the beginning about the possibility of a story getting killed or a particular voice not making it into the final piece.  

 

What impact do you think your mental health reporting and/or fellowship project has had?

Over the course of the fellowship year, my colleagues at State of the Re:Union got more invested in mental health reporting, opening up a door for myself and my co-producers to dig further and do more mental health stories.  I followed up my fellowship project with an hour-long special on the challenges veterans face coming home war– almost every story in the hour touched on mental health– and some in-depth reporting on schizophrenia, violence, the insanity plea, voice hearers and The Hearing Voices Network, and Dr. Loren Mosher’s Soteria project, an experimental drug-free treatment for psychosis.  

One of those stories, The Hospital Always Wins, was one that I worked on for nine years.  Over that time it grew from a small reporting project into an hour-long documentary.  When I first pitched the story, back in 2004, I got a range of responses about putting the voice of someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia at the center of a story.  A few editors were skeptical, some outright derisive.  I’ve seen an incredible shift in attitudes since then.  The media is no longer so afraid of the voices of people with lived experience of mental illness, the so-called “unreliable narrators.”  I hope that I can continue to contribute to the broadening of the field in this way.

 

Which one piece of media would you recommend that accurately depicts a mental health topic?

Gregory Warner’s (2007-2008 Carter Fellow) Radiolab piece The Frowners digs into family, lived experience, and how deeply diagnoses affect both those who embrace them and those who resist them.  A fascinating and sensitive look into autism and family dynamics.

 

Laura Starecheski travels the United States as a radio producer with NPR’s State of the Re:Union (SOTRU).  Her stories have also aired on programs such as Radiolab, The World, Latino USA and elsewhere, and have been honored by the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, among others. Laura serves on the board of the Association of Independents in Radio, and she is a 2013-2014 Knight-Wallace Fellow at The University of Michigan.

View Previously Featured Fellows

My entrée to mental health reporting in 1999 was unplanned. I was working for a not-for-profit organization and a request came in for someone to speak about depression during the holidays for a local Spanish television show, Diálogo en el Bronx.

Not sure what to expect, I was open to providing whatever information might be helpful for viewers. What followed was truly a diálogo. We talked about the influence of culture and the holiday blues for Spanish-speaking communities. Experiences like being separated from loved ones due to immigration, feeling depressed about not being in one’s country of origin, dealing with short days and cold weather, and confronting stigma were all relevant for this conversation.

I left the studio motivated to learn more, not only about reporting, but also about how to cover the impact of culture on mental health. How does culture influence the expression of emotion? What is the impact of stigma on different communities? What role does culture play in understanding trauma? How can we provide culturally responsive mental health services?

In 2004-2005 I became a fellow in the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. The focus of my project was to explore the stigma of mental illness within Latino communities and report on this area through my column at the newspaper Hoy (Newsday in Spanish) and as a guest correspondent for the local Univision station.  The topic was covered broadly– from looking at stigma among the elderly to its impact among young families. Consistently it became evident that mental health could be understood within a cultural context.

One particularly striking interview was with a mother who knew she had post-partum depression but dared not seek support. She explained how the role of mother was so important in the Latino community that the idea of saying she was depressed after becoming a mother was incomprehensible. This woman feared being ostracized. She feared being considered less of a mother, and less of a woman, because she felt depressed. Her cultural beliefs stopped her from seeking help—even though she was a mental health professional!

These questions are central to understanding the intersection of mental health and culture. They are at the heart of the international component of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships, for they encourage us to examine mental health reporting in different national and cultural contexts. What are the concerns of the country? Are there historical underpinnings to mental health issues? What is the role of language?

For instance, at our 2013 fellowship meeting, we acknowledged with the fellows from Colombia, the program’s first expansion into South America, that words like “resilience” and “assertive” simply don’t exist in Spanish. The fellows from Colombia are charting new waters as they seek to express concepts in a Spanish-speaking culture that we take for granted in the English language.

The ability to engage in this diálogo is a tribute to Mrs. Carter and her mission.

Former fellow Greg Miller has a new piece out in WIRED about the preeminent psychiatrist Vikram Patel. Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is one of the leaders in the global mental health movement and well known for his strategy of task shifting, which he discusses in his interview with Miller. The piece, How to Treat Depression When Psychiatrists Are Scarce, was published on December 3rd.

 

Read the whole interview here: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/12/patelqa/

Radio Producer Laura Starecheski, 2011-2012 Fellow, has recently released three new pieces on schizophrenia and a special on veterans with a focus on mental health.

The first piece, The Hospital Always Wins, is a culmination of Laura’s nine-year relationship with artist Issa Ibrahim that inspired her entry into mental health reporting. She reports on Issa’s experience with schizophrenia: the voices and delusions and what happens after his insanity plea. The hour-long episode was aired on NPR’s State of the Re:Union.

The radio shorts, Dear Voices and Soteria, give further dimension on living and understanding schizophrenia.

Finally, an hour-long special, Coming Home, takes a focus on veteran mental health.

One of our current fellows, Seattle based journalist Jonathan Martin, has an editorial out on the benefits of peer bridges to reduce hospitalizations and enhance recovery.

Find his article in the Seattle Times here.

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