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Showing IRE

November 1, 2007
by Ronald W. Manderscheid, PhD
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A gathering of reporters highlights how their work can prompt changes in mental health systems

Several months ago, I had the privilege to participate in the Annual National Conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). This yearly meeting showcases IRE members' work, including investigative methods along with access and interviewing strategies. IRE has more than 4,000 members, and about 1,000 were present at this year's meeting in Phoenix.

This was the first year that the Carter Center Mental Health Program organized a session for the IRE conference. The Carter Center operates a fellowship program for reporters under Rebecca Palpant's very capable leadership. Every year ten recipients are chosen for the one-year fellowships. At the beginning of their fellowships, the recipients assemble at the Carter Center for initial briefings and training. Subsequently, they use their fellowship funds to develop reports on topics important to the mental health field.

The Carter Center session included a previous fellowship recipient, Michelle Roberts. The reporters attending the session discussed their investigative stories about mental health. I was there to provide basic information on the mental health field and a policy context for the reporters' work.

Roberts, from The Oregonian, investigated the financing and operation of Oregon State Hospital. Her report detailed the impact of major funding deficiencies on quality of care. The state legislature is following up on her investigation.

Two reporters from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Alan Judd and Andy Miller, wrote a series of reports about the large number of questionable deaths in Georgia's state hospital system. To compile information on these deaths, they interviewed state hospital staff, consumers, and family members. Their work prompted the formation of a state commission to investigate abuse and neglect of consumers in Georgia's state hospital system.

Meg Kissinger, an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reported on the abuse and neglect of mental health consumers in community residential placements. She discovered dirty, filthy, and poorly maintained buildings that endangered occupants, as well as poor food-handling habits.

It is interesting to speculate whether these abuses would have come to light without investigative reporting. Although system managers may have known about some or all of these problems, I suspect that they felt powerless to do anything about them. Several major impediments to positive action frequently include lack of sufficient financial resources, trained staff, and needed system integration to exert effects on the operation of parallel systems.

Thus, these investigative reporters perform an important social function for all of us. They increase community awareness and ire about intractable problems. The resulting spotlight hopefully brings attention and quick action from key players (e.g., state governors and legislatures), as it did in the above cases.

Generally, little interaction occurs between the mental health and media communities. At best, our interactions with the media are standoffish; at worst, negative. As a result, many reporters know little about the day-to-day operations of our field. More knowledge would translate into more positive coverage of our field and all the outstanding work that is done 24/7.

Our hats are off to investigative reporters, IRE, and the Carter Center for taking leadership to begin moving us in an important direction.

Ronald W. Manderscheid, PhD, currently Director of Mental Health and Substance Use Programs at the consulting firm Constella Group, LLC, worked for more than 30 years in the federal government on behavioral health research and policy. He is a member of Behavioral Healthcare's Editorial Board.

To contact Dr. Manderscheid, e-mail rmanderscheid@constellagroup.com.

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