New England Public Media’s Karen Brown on mental health reporting

Drawing on decades of reporting on mental health, Karen Brown of New England Public Media offers student journalists advice on covering mental health stories for podcasts or video.

SRL: How do you get subjects to discuss their mental health? 

KB: Oftentimes, people have been dying to be asked about this topic or they they’ve suffered so much, they want to make meaning from their own experience. And a lot of times doctors don’t even want to broach the subject. So that’s usually the initial challenge. But once they ask someone, would you be willing to talk to this reporter about your depression or your child’s depression, even they usually say, sure, I just want them to know that I think that this is a normal situation that they’re in. So that’s sort of the first place is kind of normalizing the fact that we all have mental health issues. And then I just ask them to really tell me about their experience. I really try and put it in their hands. Tell me what it was like when you first started experiencing depression symptoms.  What did it feel like? So really letting them define how they want to explain what their experiences instead of a lot of pointed questions that suggests that I have a lot of preconceived notions about what they’re experiencing.

SRL: How do you make subjects comfortable to discuss sensitive topics?

KB: When I do audio interviews, people get a little nervous about the microphone right in front of their face in the beginning, so I spend at least a few minutes icebreaking and just chatting about something.

I really let people tell me their whole entire story from beginning to end, maybe when they were diagnosed, when they first had symptoms, what it’s been like. And sometimes I can take half an hour, sometimes even forty five minutes. But again, it gives the power to them to tell their own story. And then I go back afterwards and I’ll ask the questions that I know that I really needed to get. But I find that to go to your original question is how do I make people feel comfortable? That’s really helped, like letting them know that they get to tell their own narrative. That doesn’t mean that you have to use their whole narrative in the final piece. And of course, you usually don’t use it exactly the way they tell it. But letting them have control over their own story in the interview I think is really helpful and important.

SRL: Do you ever leave subjects’ full names out of your stories? 

KB: I’m usually really strict about anonymity with most of my stories, but I generally make exceptions for mental health stories that I feel like there’s a real sensitivity and I can understand why people don’t want to put their their full names out there. But it’s been less common than you’d think with people asking for anonymity. What I usually do is I’ll ask them, is it OK if I use your full name? I’ll just start that way. And I would say that 80 percent of the people say, sure, like by this time, they’ve already agreed to talk to a reporter. And they’ve also sort of had a conversation with themselves over I’m putting this information out there for the good of the world to make meaning of my experience. 

SRL: How has your reporting on mental health impacted listeners?

KB: One of the documentaries that I did was on mental health, bipolar disorder in children and teenagers. And I did this maybe 10, 10 years ago, maybe a little longer before there was a lot of writing about it. And for some of the people listening to the documentary, they said this was the first time that they had really heard about these symptoms. Some people have said that they’d been experiencing just very troubling behavior with their children and hadn’t thought that it might be a serious mental health issue. They thought maybe it was just obstinacy or behavioral problems. So my story put the idea in their head to go get professional help. Obviously, you never want your story to be their professional help, but to prompt them to go talk to a psychiatrist or therapist. So that was really gratifying to know that.

And I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people often with depression or bipolar disorder or even post-traumatic stress. I’ve done a lot of reporting on that, saying just thank you for letting me know I’m not alone. Thank you for normalizing what I’m going through.

SRL: How did you first become interested in reporting on mental health? 

KB: I think like most people, I’ve had issues with family members dealing with mental health struggles, I’ve never felt like there was enough information out there. So, you know, like a lot of stories, they come from a personal interest. And I just started looking into things like trauma, the effects of trauma, mental illness like depression and schizophrenia. 

SRL: Do your interviews ever emotionally affect you? 

KB: You mean, how do I stop from bursting into tears in the middle of an interview, that kind of thing? Sometimes I don’t stop sometimes. You know, I’ve done stories on people who have lost loved ones or really horrible trauma and horrible things that have happened to people. And I mean, I don’t literally burst into tears, but sometimes it’s a moment between me and the person I’m interviewing where it is a really sad, difficult thing. And it would be really weird for me not to have that reaction. I don’t. It’s really important that in any interview, it’s not about me and my reaction, but I also don’t try to hide if I have a reaction to it, because that would not be human and that wouldn’t be that wouldn’t be fair to the other person to feel like they’re talking to a robot.

SRL: Is the stigma around mental health lifting? 

KB: I think so. I again, like I don’t have problems finding people willing to talk about their mental health issues. I know that there’s been a lot about sort of young people and anxiety, and especially in the last few years. I think that’s a topic that someone might have thought five or ten years ago. I don’t want to admit that I have anxiety and now it’s just out there. And now if you don’t have anxiety, what’s wrong with you? I know my own kids who are now in college, but they talk about being traumatized by this or traumatized by that. I mean, it’s a little bit of a shorthand. And I usually remind them that there’s a difference between being, quote, traumatized by a math test and and having trauma from war or abuse or something like that. But a it’s a term that’s out there that people understand has an effect. And it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. It means that something has happened to you and you are dealing with it. And I feel like that’s a really important shift.

SRL: Could stories on suicide trigger others to harm themselves?

KB: There’s really no evidence that talking about suicide puts that idea in anybody’s head that wasn’t already going to be there. So I trust them. I think it’s probably much more important to talk about it. I feel like that’s more likely to stop people from attempting suicide if they realize that there’s help out there and that they can have that conversation. So if you’re going to weigh those two things based on what the professionals say, that’s how I look at it.

Student Reporting Labs is NOT a crisis or suicide response provider. If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741) or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also visit SRL’s mental health resource list for more.