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How to measure mental health care in your community

By Emily Burns

Friday’s panel on mental health care reporting began with a video clip of the 60 Minutes episode, “Nowhere To Go.” The episode focused on mental health care for young people and featured an interview with Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who was stabbed by his mentally ill son, Austin, who also took his own life. The day before the stabbing, Austin had gone to a hospital for mental health care, but was not admitted due to a shortage of beds.

Two producers of the episode, Michael Rey and Oriana Zill de Granados, were on the panel and spoke about the episode. Rey said one of the lessons they were trying to impart was the importance of context in mental health stories.

“The more reporting we’re doing when there’s not a school shooting, when there’s not a high-profile event, then the more prepared we are, at least on the television side, to be ready for those moments, to put those incidents in context,” Rey said.

Zill de Granados said mental health stories are good for reporting because they can be emotional and meaningful, but also supported with data and proposed solutions.

“It’s really amazing when you start looking at it, to realize how broken the system really is,”  Zill de Granados said.

Brian M. Rosenthal, now a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, was working at the Seattle Times when he wrote multiple stories about mental health care in Washington.

Rosenthal hadn’t reported much on mental health prior to his stories at the Seattle Times, so he spoke about how others can jump into mental health reporting with little background in the subject.

In Rosenthal’s case, he did quick-turn mental health stories while waiting for documents for his larger project. The method is a good way to learn more about the system while also being able to report on different angles, he said. Start working on a big mental health project, he said, and the tips and the anecdotes for other stories will start to flow in.

Rosenthal also suggested utilizing various types of mental health data: rates of commitment, funding information, lengths of stay in treatment, etc.

Meg Kissinger, who has been reporting on mental health for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for decades, also spoke on the panel.

“I think that this has been a public health problem forever,” Kissinger said. “As long as there have been people there have been people with mental illness, and we ignore it at our peril and at the peril of our society, and at the peril of the health of the people that are suffering from this.”

Kissinger also spoke about the difficulty of getting sources to open up about mental illness, but advised that people will eventually speak. She also suggested using mental health advocacy groups as resources.


Emily Burns works as an investigative researcher for inewsource, a media partner of KPBS. Emily also works as an assistant producer at KPBS, the local PBS and NPR affiliate in San Diego.

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