What to keep in mind when asking people to share their mental health struggles

Published on
August 9, 2017

As a reporter who specializes in covering mental health, I spend more time than most forging emotional connections. To do my work, I have to ask people to share painful, deeply personal, and highly stigmatized experiences. I have to prove that I’m worthy of hearing about those experiences and that I will do them justice when I sit down to write my script or work with an editor to cut our footage into a story. When people agree to talk with me — and I’m always stunned and honored that they do — I bear their trust like the heavy burden it should be.

Emotional engagement lies at the heart of what I do, and yet I have never engaged in the way that I have over this past year, as I followed a group of young people to produce a documentary on teens and young adults living with mental illness. I have spent more time with these young people than I’ve ever devoted to a single story. I’ve sat with them as they packed for college, visited their schools and attended their graduations, fielded their late-night calls and texts when major events happened in their lives. I’ve celebrated with them when things have gone well and worried for them when they haven’t.

When this work began, my partner in this project (documentary producer Tom Kleespie) and I knew the statistics. One in three teens — and nearly 40 percent of girls — report feeling prolonged sadness and hopelessness. One in five teens has a debilitating mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. More than 17 percent have seriously considered suicide, and almost 9 percent have actually attempted it.

We set out to discover some of the real people behind these statistics. We hoped to share the stories of young people who are living with mental illness right now — to talk to them and their families about their experiences, to follow them as they navigate adolescence and young adulthood, to witness the roadblocks they encounter as they seek wellness — and to see what we might learn about why so many suffer so much.

I felt strongly that our group of young people should be truly diverse. I wanted to show a variety of diagnoses, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and geographic locations to illustrate that this problem affects all of us. And that proved to be a tall order. Finding the right sources took a lot of time and effort, and it was the greatest challenge Tom and I faced.

We followed every possible lead, whether it was calling a friend of a friend who knew somebody, or meeting with every member of the regional behavioral health authority’s youth advisory council. We contacted advocacy groups, doctors, social workers, teachers, guidance counselors, and anyone else we could think of. It took months to find the individuals who ultimately became our guides and gave this documentary its humanity and heart.

Whenever we encountered an interested young person or parent, we took our time. This is another tall order, especially for resource-strapped newsrooms. We met with each would-be participant in person, without cameras or recorders, just to explain our hopes for the project and to learn a bit about their lives. We showed them examples of our past work so they could see how we’ve handled the sensitive subjects we cover. We provided copies of our release forms so they could take time to read and consider them before agreeing to be part of the project. If they agreed, we filmed only where and when they wanted and essentially put ourselves on call. At every step in the process, we did whatever we could to give participants the sense of agency and control they deserve when revealing so much of their lives to the world.

What emerged were powerful and sometimes painful portraits of people struggling within a broken system and often unsupportive schools, or succeeding despite the odds against them, whether those stem from discrimination or a long-undiagnosed developmental disorder. These four stories were offshoots from the larger documentary, which is nearing completion and will chronicle the journeys of eight other individuals. The full documentary features the range of voices I had hoped for, all sharing pieces of their lives with astonishing courage and grace.

I had never worked with a partner before this project, and I had never really needed to distill for another storyteller how I do what I do. But my discussions with Tom — who has produced documentaries on a variety of topics but has never covered behavioral health — reminded me of all the lessons I’ve learned from reporting on trauma and mental illness. Be persistent in seeking out those personal stories that can bring a complex or controversial subject to life. Take your time with sources once you find them. Empower those who share their experiences with you as much as you can. Here are a few other suggestions as well:

Find out for yourself. Reading the scientific literature on your subject — whether that’s the health impact of lead exposure or disparities in infant mortality rates — equips you to ask deeper questions of experts and gives you a clearer perspective on their views. Knowing where the consensus lies and the strength of the research on which it’s based will only make you a stronger reporter on the topic.

Don’t discount the small stuff. When Tom and I went back and reviewed our footage, we discovered a critical difference in our perspectives. In one of our many interviews, a young participant talked about a future with their partner. Tom dismissed that as normal and didn’t think of including it as a milestone in this participant’s journey. I saw it as a significant shift — before that moment, our participant had not been able to even imagine a future. As soon as I pointed that out, he understood and agreed that it was important. In some situations, it can be a triumph to get out of bed, leave the house, or think five years down the road. Sometimes the little things mean everything.

Be vigilant. All of us come to our reporting with our own experiences, assumptions, and biases. Whether we identify with the people we’re reporting on or are venturing into a world quite different from our own, it’s important to observe ourselves as we do this work. I find it helpful to check myself by asking: Am I projecting my own experiences and perceptions on my sources? Am I making assumptions about what I’ll find through my reporting? Am I invested in a specific outcome? And once I’m at the writing stage, does my language reinforce any stigmas or stereotypes?

Be vulnerable. The magic is in how we listen and how we ask. When reporting on people who are struggling or have struggled, give them space to let you in to their world, and be vulnerable enough to say: Help me understand. Walk me through it. Tell me everything you wish people could know about your journey.

These are just a handful of the lessons one reporter has learned. Working with a partner on this project has shown me that there are as many successful ways to approach this work as there are people who do it. Tom and I have different styles, ask different questions, write with different voices, yet we both strive to do justice to the people who entrust us with their stories.

I share my own lessons in hopes that they might help some of you as you report on people’s struggles and pain, whatever the context for that suffering might be. This work can be heavy and hard. The least we can do is help each other through it.

[Photo by Marie. L. via Flickr.]