These Take the Prize: Journalists and Mental Health Advocacy
Pulitzer Prizes represent the highest honors for print journalism. They are given in recognition for both professional excellence and public service.
This past month marked the 100th anniversary of the awards. What is even more exciting is that several selections focused on mental health concerns, bringing attention and awareness to the movement.
The Washington Post won the award for National Reporting for a series on fatal shootings by police—including individuals experiencing psychiatric crises. The newspaper built a detailed database to make up for the fact that few statistics existed.
NAMI CEO Mary Giliberti wrote a letter to the editor noting that the proportion of fatal shootings involving people with mental illness was probably much higher than the 25% reported—and called for a nationwide expansion of police crisis interventions teams. The result was a subsequent article in the series, Distraught People, Deadly Results - Police Often Lack Training, in which NAMI Senior Policy Advisor Ron Honberg and CIT Manager Laura Usher were interviewed.
The series has fueled administrative and legislative reform initiatives to begin collecting official data involving police shootings and broader efforts for mental health reform.
An extensive story, Insane. Invisible. In danger, by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald Tribune exposed abuse and neglect in Florida’s state psychiatric hospitals and held state officials responsible. It won the prize for Investigative Reporting. The investigation took two years and required examining millions of records and piercing administrative secrecy and resistance. A columnist for the Miami Herald referred to the state system as a "torture chamber." The exposure has led to reform initiatives at both state and federal levels.
Two finalists for Pulitzer Prizes are worth noting. In the Local Reporting category, the Minneapolis Star Tribune was a finalist for A Matter of Dignity, a five-part series on the state’s dehumanizing healthcare system for people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. The series led state leaders to move quickly for reforms.
In the Commentary category, columnist Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times was a finalist based on 10 columns about huge inequalities in wealth and opportunity in the nation’s second-largest city. While the columns do not directly involve people with mental illness, gaps in income and public investment in mental health care programs certainly affect them.
Lopez wrote the columns in anticipation of public debate over income inequality during the 2016 presidential campaign. In one he contrasted $100-million homes with gyms, movie theaters and 10,000-square-foot master bedroom suites with a shack occupied by a former registered nurse who bathes outside so that sunlight can heat her water.
Lopez is also a mental health advocate. He won national fame through his book The Soloist (2008), based on a series of columns about his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musical prodigy with schizophrenia, whom he found living on LA’s Skid Row. The book was later turned into a movie of the same title.
Each year, the Pulitzer Prizes contribute to public debate on vital issues. In the best of all cases, they build public support that spurs public officials into action. Working with the news media is an important part of advocacy and part of NAMI’s overall mission to improve the lives of Americans affected by mental illness.