Storytelling as activism: mental health reporting in Chicago


In mid-December, I walked toward the storefront office of the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers on Chicago’s Northwest Side. I walked in the front door feeling intense and nervous. There are moments in reporting that aren’t about collecting heaps of documents or asking lots of questions, but simply about being the reporter people will let inside their lives. This was one of those moments.

Often, the people we ask to let us in are those most vulnerable and most misunderstood in our society. They have many reasons not to trust. And here I was, lugging notebooks, pens, a camera, a recorder—all the tools of exposing a life. But those same vulnerable people may also be motivated to communicate with someone like me, because they want to tell their story.

The Coalition activists had recently achieved something remarkable: They persuaded other members of the community to raise their own taxes and fund the first expansion in public mental health services in Chicago in two decades.

Many, though not all, of these activists had also struggled with mental health issues. I knew the bare bones of this story from the outside. I wanted to know more.

And so, within minutes of meeting the group, I posed a hard question. I turned to Diana Bryant, a woman who had just revealed her diagnosis of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and asked whether I could spend time with her—in her home, going through daily life, trying to understand who she was and what joys, sorrows and purpose made up her days.

Without a pause, she said yes.

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I embarked on this journey into mental health journalism thanks to the Social Justice News Nexus, a fellowship program housed at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The fellowship guides a group of Chicago-area journalists in reporting on an important social justice issue in the city. During this fellowship cycle, the fellows all reported on mental health in Chicago, where the city closed six of its 12 public mental health centers in 2012.

The program sent reporters into the Cook County Jail and into the neighborhoods hit hard by the closures. The result is a powerful series of stories.

What does journalism have to do with social justice? Many in the business would say little, or even nothing, at all. They might say journalism is about getting information to the public that the public needs (or wants) to know: what the Clintons and Bushes are doing, what the bird-flu experts say, what threats are coming from other countries, what the pollen count is today, what’s happening with the Blackhawks and the Bulls, etc. I would say yes, all of this—but also something more. We need to know about the people who don’t usually end up in the news. We need to study what government policy is doing to their lives.

Vulnerable people matter. Their lives can tell us a great deal about the quality of our government: Does it protect its people or expose them to harm and suffering? Does it make money via policies that punish people who have less or who have illnesses? As a journalist, I think it’s important to ask who gets a voice. Who gets heard? Who gets rewarded? Who is ignored?

Mental health reporting is about raising these, and other, important questions. Is the available treatment good enough to help those in need? Can everyone who needs mental health care get access? Are there enough doctors and counselors? Are real people at risk because our government isn’t providing enough services?

The answer to that last question, for many years, has been yes. In 1991, Chicago had 19 public mental health clinics. The system also included therapists who would go into the community to visit schools and senior centers. But after Mayor Richard M. Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed all but six of those clinics, there is not enough help to go around.

As a journalist, I think it’s important to ask who gets a voice. Who gets heard? Who gets rewarded? Who is ignored?

People did not take it lying down, and that is part of the story too. The closures galvanized clinic clients and other activists, and helped propel the rise of a progressive movement in the city and the first mayoral runoff in Chicago history.

The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, where I met Diana Bryant, managed to save North River Mental Health Center (in the city’s North Park neighborhood) by working with the local alderman. And those taxes they raised from their neighbors? They helped fund a new public health clinic, The Kedzie Center, opened in late 2014, which provides free counseling and psychiatric services. The activists believe their model is one other neighborhoods can use.

The importance of this work was clear after meeting Diana, who allowed me to spend several hours with her over the days leading up to Christmas. She talked at length about her struggles with PTSD and depression, her economic difficulties, the friends who abandoned her at a difficult time and the life-changing gift of the North River Mental Health Center. There, Bryant receives mental health care and life-skills training and volunteers. She also holds a part-time job with the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers and helped advocate for the Kedzie Center.

Bryant has used her hardships to become a community leader. Her story bucks the stereotypes. And she is deeply grateful for her life. (Read her story.)

My reporting, and that of the other fellows, illustrates the need for mental health services in Chicago through the stories of real, compelling people. Thanks to these efforts, awareness will be increased, and change is possible.


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