Changes in Public Attitudes and Journalism Practice Regarding Mental Illness

August 6, 2013

By Bob Meyers
Years ago I attended a professional conference on mental health issues, a topic I wanted to know more about. It had taken some persuading to get my editor to OK the expenses and the time away from the office. I explained that this was a learning trip for me, so I wasn’t going to file a story.

In the middle of the day he wanted to know where my story was. No story, I said, I’m trying to learn – this stuff is hard. He was not happy.

Since 1997, when Mrs. Carter invited me to join the Mental Health Journalism Advisory Board, I’ve seen enormous changes in public attitudes and journalism practice. Topics that once were confined to the medical journals – like PTSD and the impact of culture on mental health – are now being broadcast and written about. Minority communities are now no longer ignored (in terms of coverage); the concept of stigma is openly discussed. Issues surrounding suicide – once rarely whispered about – are being researched and journalistically portrayed. The expressions of mental illness in the international communities whose journalists receive Carter Center fellowships – formerly South Africa and New Zealand, currently Romania and Colombia – reflect the growing understanding that mental health affects us all.

I’ve also seen an expansion of the concept of mental health issues. Violence is now seen as a mental health issue, whether waged by gangs or within families. Print reporters and broadcast journalists are producing readily-accessible stories that expand on once-narrow topics – for example, PTSD is no longer confined to military veterans but can be seen in children in Haiti who survived the devastating 2010 quake, as well as people who have experienced great shock and dislocation without physical wounds being seen.

The resources available through the Carter Center website, encompassing its own work and that of organizations around the country, is itself quite impressive, a database in plain sight that provides valuable resources for all who access it.

All this, I think, should make it easier for journalists to “sell” a story to an editor or producer – it’s no longer a jargon-laden topic, but something we find in everyday life.

Which is just as Mrs. Carter imagined when she started the fellowship.

Bob Meyers is an Advisory Board member for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and President and Chief Operating Officer, National Press Foundation.

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