At U.S.-Mexico Border, Journalists Learn Mental Self-Care

  • In a room with colorful art painted on the walls, a woman sits to the right of a young boy as he paints.

    Journalist Myriam Vidal Valero snapped this photo of a woman helping a child with his artwork at a Mexican shelter along the U.S. border. She and her reporting partner, Rodrigo Perez Ortega, received a fellowship from The Carter Center that allowed them to follow an evolving story of migrants at the border.

Sometimes journalists set out to find one story and end up telling a different one. When Myriam Vidal Valero and Rodrigo Perez Ortega received a joint journalism fellowship from The Carter Center in mid-2019, their plan was to document the emotional trauma faced by migrant families separated by U.S. policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But after the U.S. started requiring asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while awaiting decisions, family separation faded as an issue and overcrowding in Mexico’s makeshift migrant shelters became the greater concern. And then the emerging COVID-19 pandemic complicated the situation. So, they pivoted.

“The fellowship gave us the flexibility to follow the flow of the story,” Perez Ortega said.

Vidal Valero and Perez Ortega were two in a class of 13 journalists for 2019–2020 who were awarded Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism to report on the mental health topics of their choosing over the course of the year.

The two conducted dozens of interviews in the border cities of San Diego and El Paso in the U.S. and Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. What they saw and heard was heartbreaking.

“I remember leaving [a particular] shelter and saying, ‘Oh my god.’ So many feelings; I didn’t know where to start,” Vidal Valero said. For the sake of her own mental health, she was glad to have a teammate who could relate.

“When you’re working this kind of story, it can be really draining emotionally, and knowing you have somebody there with you all the time, someone to lean on, someone who will listen to you and understand what is happening to you, I think that was one of the crucial points for us,” she said.

The two developed a practice of closing their workdays by writing reporting diaries, private notes to remind themselves of what they had seen and experienced. This was helpful not only for organizing their storytelling, but also “to kind of vent and let it all go,” Perez Ortega said.

There were bright moments. The reporters visited a school bus that served as a mobile classroom for migrant children, “who have gone through a lot, but they’re still kids and they still want to paint and have fun and sing and have joy,” Perez Ortega said.

Once COVID hit, the nonprofit that ran the bus started a virtual school, including lessons on human rights — “all the things they needed to know to regain some dignity as migrants — especially the children, to know that they matter,” Vidal Valero said.

The New York Times published their story about the school bus, and they later shared their experiences with the other journalists in the class of Rosalynn Carter fellows as they wrapped up their fellowship year last September.

One lesson the journalists learned through the fellowship was to be mindful of their own level of resilience amid massive change and trauma.

“Before being a journalist, I am a human being,” Vidal Valero said. “It’s important for me to be connected and it’s important for me to take care of myself first.”