How the Carter Center uses journalism fellowships to reduce mental health stigma

Mental health journalism can always be better. As mass shootings frequently dominate political discourse, a lot of storytelling today still perpetuates the long-held but incorrect assumption that people with mental illness are disproportionately responsible for gun violence. Some stories also portray people as being unable to recover and lead meaningful lives while experiencing mental illness.

Twenty years ago, coverage of mental illness and substance abuse was even more riddled with misconceptions and stigmatizing language that can hurt people trying to seek treatment, get jobs and foster relationships. That’s why former First Lady Rosalynn Carter started fellowships for journalists who could work to raise awareness about mental health and tell more nuanced, compassionate stories.

The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism grants each reporter a $10,000 stipend and support to pursue media projects related to mental health. In July, the Carter Center announced its 20th fellowship class — eight journalists who are U.S. citizens or residents and two from Colombia — making more than 170 program recipients in all. They’ll add to the body of work of just over 1,500 pieces so far, created by fellows from a growing list of countries, including the U.S., New Zealand, South Africa and Romania.

“The program is really set up to help journalists report more accurately, to complete major projects around mental health and mental illnesses, and to develop a cadre of journalists interested in this issue,” said Rebecca Palpant Shimkets, associate director of the Carter Center’s mental health program.

Each September, the incoming and outgoing fellow classes convene at the Carter Center, along with the advisory board of experts in both mental health and media that guide them through their projects over the course of the fellowship year.

Participants are encouraged to begin their projects with an open mind about where their research and reporting will take them, rather than having angles set in stone. The review process is designed to evaluate the strength of each journalist’s reporting, network and pitch feasibility. Evaluators also consider each pitch’s potential to raise awareness, ability to reduce the stigma of mental illness and timeliness.

One of this year’s fellowship recipients, Science magazine contributing correspondent Emily Underwood, plans to take a look at mental health in refugee and migrant communities, a topic particularly relevant as people continue to flee conflict in countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in large numbers.

“I think it’s always valuable to dive into the research and do the work, and that’s what the fellowship is going to support,” she said.

The Carter Center tracks fellowship projects like Underwood’s to evaluate the concrete impacts they can — and often do, Palpant Shimkets said — leave on the communities and institutions they cover. Take the work of Michelle Roberts, a 2004 fellow then with The Oregonian: She reported extensively on alleged abuses in the adolescent ward of a state mental hospital. Ultimately, lawmakers shut down the facility.

Jaclyn Cosgrove. Photo by and courtesy of Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman.
Jaclyn Cosgrove. Photo by Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman.

Current fellow Jaclyn Cosgrove, a health reporter for The Oklahoman, has been working on “Epidemic Ignored,”  a series of stories about her home state’s history of mental health resources, especially as it relates to the criminal justice system. So far, she’s published two stories in print and two on the radio, in addition to hosting two public events designed to foster discussion around mental illness.

Cosgrove has been incorporating mental health issues into her reporting for years now, and the support of her fellowship has allowed her to delve deeper into the stories she wants to tell.

“I felt that I was working with a shovel when I could really use a backhoe,” she said. “I wanted to be able to do something that was a lot more hard-hitting and just a bigger project.”

She has several stories still in the pipeline, including an investigative piece and a solutions-based project comparing Oklahoma’s mental health care to other states, potentially including Texas, Georgia and Arkansas.

Palpant Shimkets praises journalists, both affiliated with the center and not, for continually expanding the range of mental health coverage while upping its accuracy and reducing stigma. But there’s always room for improvement.

A lot of stories in the news focus only on the hardships associated with mental illness, rather than the strength people display in working through their issues and bettering themselves. That’s something the Carter Center encourages fellows to combat in their own reporting.

“We need to really work on telling a more well-rounded picture of mental illness,” Cosgrove said. “I think it’s important for journalists to understand how got to recovery. I don’t see many of those stories told. There’s a lot of reactionary journalism, but there’s not as much of finding the stories of hope and recovery.”

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