Blog | Combating Stigma, Building Understanding: A Q&A with Carter Center Expert Rebecca Palpant

With help from the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, journalists on four continents are working to reduce stigma and raise awareness about mental health and mental illnesses in their communities. Fellowships currently are offered to 10 professional journalists in the United States, South Africa, and Romania, who use the stipends to investigate a wide range of mental health issues, producing award-winning articles, books, and radio and video documentaries.

As she prepares to welcome the 2008-2009 fellowship class to The Carter Center for their introductory meeting, Rebecca Palpant, senior program associate, Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, sat down to discuss the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and the Carter Center’s effort to defeat misconceptions about mental health.

Palpant is a national mental health advocate and an active participant on advisory boards and within national work groups related to stigma and accurate portrayals of mental illnesses in the media.

Why are people so afraid or embarrassed to discuss their concerns or experiences with mental illness?

People often only encounter mental illnesses in their extreme forms, such as through sensationalist news stories or by seeing severely ill homeless people. Untreated mental illness can be very frightening if you don’t understand its causes or know that there are highly effective treatments available. It’s unfortunate that the average person’s knowledge of mental illness is probably similar to that of their parents or grandparents, despite decades of scientific and medical advances.

How does stigma impact the diagnosis and treatment of these disorders?

Being sick is one thing, being publicly shamed for being sick adds even more misery to a person’s situation. The vast majority of people with mental illnesses don’t seek treatment, and one of the greatest barriers to accessing care is the fear of being ostracized or stigmatized by one’s community. And in addition to not getting well, people with untreated mental illnesses face potentially life-threatening and completely preventable health risks like suicide.

How does stigma impact discrimination against people with mental illnesses?

With stigma and misinformation comes the more serious problem of discrimination. If a person is known to have a mental illness, they may encounter a lot of difficulty getting a job or finding housing and transportation. On a larger scale, public funding and insurance coverage for mental health is often considerably less generous than other kinds of medical care, even though mental illnesses are extremely common-one in four Americans will experience a mental illness each year. For this reason, The Carter Center has been working for years to ensure parity in public funding and insurance coverage for mental health care.

What role or responsibility does or should the media play in reducing stigma?

Since most people learn about mental illnesses from their local newspapers or television news, the media has a very important role in shaping how the public understands these issues. Journalists make a commitment to fair and accurate reporting, but the reality is that many of them do not have the resources and training to cover mental health stories in a balanced and sensitive way.

What kind of reporting do you most often see on mental illness?

Unfortunately, most reporting on mental illnesses covers an extreme event like an act of violence or a rare condition. For example, a study in 2006 found that 40 percent of newspaper stories linked mental illness to violence despite research demonstrating that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence than be violent. The more common face of mental illness is a mother coping with depression while caring for her children or a business executive managing an anxiety disorder. People also aren’t shown the real potential for recovery even from the most serious mental illnesses.

How are the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowships unique?

We’re the only fellowship program for journalists exclusively addressing mental health. We’re also unique because our fellows come here for training and then spend the rest of their fellowship in their own newsrooms working on their projects, where they often become a resource on mental health issues for their colleagues. We’re very serious about ensuring that our fellows can maintain their independence, no matter what advocacy and program goals the Center has.

How has the fellowship program evolved over the years? Where do you see it going?

We started out as a small, U.S.-focused program, but quickly realized the need for this type of training and support existed around the world. Fellows have produced more than 300 stories, documentaries, books, and other works since the program began in 1996.

We currently focus on four areas where stigma against mental illnesses is high and mental health coverage in the news media is low-the United States, New Zealand, Romania, and South Africa. We have seen a dynamic community evolve as the nearly 100 journalists we have trained since 1996 keep in touch and collaborate with each other on mental health stories long after their fellowship has ended. As with all of our international work, we hope the journalists who participate in these fellowships will have the tools they need to establish a self-sustaining program emphasizing the accurate reporting of mental health issues that can continue long after the Center’s work in-country has ended.

What’s new about this year?

In 2008, we awarded our first two competitive fellowships to Romanian journalists. In preparation for joining the European Union, Romania identified both mental health and press freedom as two very important issues that required attention. We hope that the Romanian Rosalynn Carter fellows will help to stimulate accurate reporting about mental health issues in the press and play a crucial role in providing balanced information about these illnesses to the general public.

What impact have these fellowships had?

Because fellows are in the position of gaining public attention and awareness, we’ve seen positive change occur and government attention to important public health issues. In Oregon, for example, a fellow’s investigations led to the closing of a mental health hospital that allowed its patients to be physically and sexually abused by staff. In South Africa, a fellow’s story about the high rates of suicide for local police officers drew widespread attention.

The high quality work our fellows do often leads to them being honored by their peers or advocacy organizations. Fellows have received recognition from the Peabody committee and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, nominations for the Emmy, and several nominations for the Pulitzer Prize.

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