April 24, 2012

The Association of Health Care Journalists presented its top award this past weekend to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) for a series published earlier this year, titled “Imminent Danger.”

The series probed the issue of involuntary commitment for mental illness, based on the legal standard of “imminent danger to oneself or others.”

Only one percent of people with severe mental illness can be considered “dangerous,” the newspaper reported, while noting also that a punch or a shove was included in the definition relative to other forms of violence. The series resulted in strong reactions in the mental health community (pro and con). Discussion of violence (and the title) risked perpetuating stigma around mental illness while involuntary treatment is an issue that often splits mental health advocates.

GlobalMeg Kissinger

As part of the series, the MSJ published an editorial, "A Difficult Discussion the Community Must Have," which highlighted measures ranging from advanced directives to mental health courts. Overall, the project reflects the newspaper’s long-standing commitment to mental health issues.

Meg Kissinger is the reporter at the center of that mission. She is also one of only a few
reporters nationwide who have a sustained interest in the mental health care system. It is partly rooted in her family background.

Earlier this month, she published a moving story about her brother Jake’s experience living with mental illness titled “Can Adult Siblings Connect When Mental illness is in the Mix?” When Jake was 4 years old, he saved Meg’s life by running for help after she fell into a lake and almost drowned.

“Jake's real name is John Matthew, after my dad's older brother who was killed during World War II. This gave Jake a distinction as the white buffalo of our family, the rare and revered one who seemed to float above the fray,” Meg wrote.

A motivated and vivacious teen, Jake was an Eagle Scout. However, Jake ultimately dropped out of college. He now lives in a group home near Chicago, but is considering a move back to Milwaukee.

Jake was the third of eight children in the family. Meg was the fourth.

Meg became a reporter in part because of  her unique vantage point as the fourth child. She was always curious. Within the family, she was the one who often could report to members of the family what other members were doing. (Her status as a middle child may also be responsible for the “balanced” perspective that marks much of her work).

Meg’s first story about mental illness in the MSJ was a reminiscence in 1986 about the suicide of her sister, Nancy, eight years before. The second was in 1998, after her brother, Danny, also died from suicide.

Reluctant at first, she wrote the second story “because it was important”—as much as any about heart disease or diabetes that often are published.

Those stories “galvanized” Meg’s professional direction. Her managing editor, George Stanley, has encouraged that direction allowing her to continuing filing in-depth special reports, including "Patients in Peril" in 2010.

At one point, Meg was inspired by the contrast between her brother Jake’s living conditions and those of other people living with mental illness in Milwaukee. Her reporting sparked local action to increase housing for people with mental illness by about 500 units.

She takes the greatest pride in stories that having an impact.

After reporting on so many parts of a broken mental health care system, Meg hopes to focus next on programs that work. But, it also will mean comparing them to programs that don’t.

Meanwhile, Meg’s story of her relationship with her brother Jake is worth reading more than once. It certainly moved me.

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