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Breaking New Ground in Mental Health Journalism in Colombia

From their headquarters at Bogotá's Caracol television news, health reporters Paula Bedoya and Fernanda Hernández have covered the flu, prenatal care, eyesight, and cancer. But mental health is one medical topic these two journalists rarely, if ever, tackle.

"People with mental illnesses are afraid to talk about it with other people," said Bedoya. As a member of one of two Colombian reporting teams recently awarded Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, however, she will soon add stories on depression and stigma to the Caracol news broadcast.

Although the majority of fellowship recipients are U.S.-based journalists, The Carter Center also works to establish similar programs internationally. This year marked the beginning of a Colombian program.

"Colombia is a post-conflict country, so there is a tremendous amount of trauma that the population has experienced," said Rebecca Palpant Shimkets of The Carter Center, referring to years of Colombian civil war. "The good news is that the country has a national mental health policy with a law that requires promotion and treatment of mental health, so there's government recognition that a stronger system is needed to support mental health needs." Over the years, the Center also has worked to establish journalism fellowship programs in New Zealand, South Africa, and Romania.

To report on depression in Colombia, Bedoya and Hernández plan to organize a series of focus groups to discover the population's beliefs and perceptions. "We want to get our own information," Hernández said. The team of two will then plan a series of reports to air on Caracol in the coming year.

"We work in a very influential platform," Hernández said. "We want people to become more aware about this topic and alleviate the suffering of many patients and families."

Bedoya and Hernández's television station reaches millions, so although the pair is based in Colombia's largest city, their reports will touch rural and urban areas. "I think access to mental health care is a big issue in the rural areas, but the challenge is they're also some of the highest need areas," said Shimkets.

The Carter Center's in-country partner?-?Universidad de La Sabana?-?organized a training workshop this fall for journalists in Bogotá. "We've done this in Romania and South Africa and have found it to be very successful. Not only to mark the fellow-ship opportunity, but also to train a wider pool of journalists on mental health issues. Such events will broaden our reach."

Unique to the Colombian program is shared fellowships. Typically, one reporter received one fellowship, which includes training, a stipend, networking, and mentoring for a one-year period. Colombian journalists often work collaboratively, so Bedoya and Hernández are sharing one fellowship. Another two journalists who work on the most influential Colombian news-magazine, Semana, will share a second fellowship.

"It's a privilege," said Bedoya.

"We're not going to save the world," said Hernández. "But at least we want people to start speaking and thinking about depression."

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