Author, investigative journalist and Columbia J-school professor Stephen Fried will teach a new nonfiction writing course at University of Pennsylvania next semester. The course, which which will focus on writing about mental health and addiction, will be among the first undergraduate coursesof its kind in the U.S.
Students taking the spring class, titled “Advanced Nonfiction Writing: Writing about Mental Health and Addiction,” will hear from guest lecturers and will read and discuss writings about behavioral health.
After covering mental health as a journalist for years, Fried said he understands the importance of teaching students how to report on these topics in a nuanced way. Uninformed writing about this subject matter can perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental illness and seeking psychiatric help.
Fried is the author of numerous books about the prescription drug industry and mental illness. In 2015 he co-authored Patrick Kennedy’s memoir A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.
May is Mental Health Month and numerous organizations and celebrities are speaking up to raise awareness about the often taboo topic.
In a report for Cronkite News journalist Luke Wright focuses on famous athletes who describe their experiences with depression, panic attacks and suicide. The report features athletes from sports including basketball, football and track. The statistics mentioned in the story may shock from readers, for example Wright reports that, “Nearly 24 percent of 465 athletes at NCAA Division I private universities reported a “clinically relevant” level of depression, according to a 2016 study by researchers at Drexel and Kean universities. Female athletes had a higher prevalence rate: 28 percent vs. 18 percent.”
The science magazine “Nature” also features a collection of articles this month focused on mental health awareness in the science research industry. One article by Emily Sohn reports that graduate students are especially vulnerable to mental illness and includes tips from mental health experts on how to avoid it. In an opinion essay for “Nature” scientist Dave Reay describes his symptoms of depression as a “black dog,” similar to the one Winston Churchill made famous, that haunted his pursuit of a Ph.D.
In a story for NBC’s “Today Show” reporter Cynthia McFadden interviewed three teenagers with mental health disorders reacting positively to the social media campaign #MyYoungerSelf. The campaign features candid testimonies from sports and entertainment celebrities describing their experiences living with depression and anxiety.
Steven Loch doesn’t know why his obsessive-compulsive disorder subsides while he’s dancing, but he’s grateful for the relief it provides from the “torture” of his symptoms. In a compelling interview with Brendan Kiley of The Seattle Times, Loch gives a candid description of the disturbing thoughts that cause his unpleasant behavior and prompted him to find treatment at psychiatric hospitals.
Kiley’s excellent article also features an explanation by Dr. Sam Zinner, a specialist in neurological development, of OCD’s medical origins.
“The human brain has a cluster of neurons called the basal ganglia. Put together, he explained, they’re the size of a walnut, and take in the deluge of cognitive, motor, memory, emotional and sensory information that floods through our brains when we, say, kick a soccer ball or watch out for poisonous snakes while walking through a swamp. The basal ganglia are supposed to filter out all the extraneous noise so we can focus on the task at hand. “In every picosecond of time,” Zinner said, “the basal ganglia have to decide what is relevant, what not to block out so you can survive.”
But the basal ganglia in brains with OCD — and related conditions, including Tourette syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — are, in his words, “leaky filters.” Those leaks lead to information overload and behavior that, to the casual observer, might seem odd — like compulsively touching a magazine three times before picking it up, or hiding on a bathroom floor in costume during a ballet performance to avoid horrifying, intrusive thoughts.”
Hear Steve Loch describing his OCD symptoms in his own words and watch him dance in this captivating video by Seattle Times’ video editor Corinne Chin.
Students at Columbia are seeking help from disability rights lawyers to convince university housing officials that multiple assistance animals are a medically required disability accommodation. Olivia Deloian of the Columbia Chronicle interviewed business major Lindsey Barrett who says her therapist prescribed dog companionship to treat symptoms of adjustment disorder. The problem is, Barrett already has an emotional support cat for her severe anxiety disorder, which means she needs new approval from Columbia to house the second animal. Deloian carefully describes her journalism process in contacting Columbia officials to request their side of the disagreement. With Barrett’s help, Deloian also provides a useful explanation of the distinction between emotional support animals and other service animals.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released a statement condemning the imprecise language recently used by public figures to discuss the connection between mental health and mass shootings. President Trump and Dana Loesch, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, used words including “sicko,” “nuts” and “crazy person” to describe the diagnoses of mass shooter Nikolas Cruz. The NAMI statement criticizes such comments as reinforcing “inaccurate and negative stereotypes” that “create barriers to having real conversations about how to improve the mental health services that lead to recovery and participation in American society by people experiencing mental health conditions.” CNN.com interviewed several mental health experts who also suggested that mental illness is not a reliable condition for predicting violent behavior.Click here to read NAMI’s statement and click here to read CNN’s article.
Former British journalist, Patrick Cockburn, and his son Henry Cockburn, co-wrote an op-ed for The Independent candidly describing Henry’s experience with schizophrenia. The article is the first in a 3-part series focusing on how Henry’s mental illness has shaped his career as a professional painter. Click here to read about this father-son story in The Independent.
In The New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal shares the story of a young man struggling with mental illness, shot while receiving care at a hospital. The story delves into the pervasive issue of guns wielded in medical institutions. Read more
Politico’s Alex Thompson discusses the history of mental illness in politics, and the stigma it carries, particularly in the race for Commander in Chief. One former presidential physician calls mental illness “the kiss of death” for a candidate. Read more