MindSiteNews.org is the nation’s only news organization exclusively covering mental health. It’s an outgrowth of a smaller website at Steinberg Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on mental health care and policy in California that veteran health and mental health journalist and AHCJ award-winner Rob Waters launched in September 2021.
Waters, Mind Site’s founding editor, is a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow whose work has appeared in publications including Health Affairs, Kaiser Health News, STAT and The Washington Post. A former reporter and editor at Bloomberg News and Psychotherapy Network, he discussed with AHCJ his reasons for creating Mind Site News and why its coverage is especially important right now.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What prompted you to launch this Mind Site News?
As the pandemic wore on, I felt there was a need for a dedicated news site that was just focused on mental health. I saw it as the [criminal justice-focused] Marshall Project for mental health. I took that idea to a few people, including Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, and science journalist Diana Hembree, who is my co-founding editor.
Since its launch, what has Mind Site accomplished?
We’ve run about 170 original, longer, deeper stories. We do a daily newsletter aggregating mental health news coverage. It’s been a road, super interesting, and tons of work. And I think we’ve done some great reporting.
Are there specific areas of focus for you?
We’re interested in the intersection of criminal justice and mental health. We’re looking at the ways that criminal justice systems criminalize mental illness. We are one part investigative, one part solutions focused.
Our full-time data reporter in Chicago, Josh McGhee, did his first data investigation looking at mental health-related calls to 911 in Chicago and the degree to which they lead to police use of force and arrests, which happens a lot. Since then, he’s been doing Freedom of Information Act requests for data, in cities across the country, on how often police take people in mental health crises to hospitals. We know that in cities like New York, half of the mental health calls end up with people handcuffed to a gurney in an emergency room.
We also very much want to be showcasing new kinds of care, use of peer support and peer respite, where folks set up a place that is like a home, where people in crisis can go for a week or two and basically chill out with the support of others who’ve been there, who’ve been It is not a medical setting, it is social support, people helping people. That is an important and low-cost innovation that can be powerful in helping people.
How do you choose language, and set a tone in ways that ensure the journalistic integrity of your coverage?
We don’t want to talk about people in pejorative ways or use diagnostic labels as things that are demeaning.
A debate that goes on in mental health and among the public at large is this whole issue of violence and people with mental illness. We know they are more likely to be victims of violence than victimizers. It’s also true that some folks with severe mental illness do commit acts of violence, although that is a small number of folks. Telling both of those truths, that’s important.
Also, much of our coverage of nonprofits is inherently positive. But there will be times that we will report on something that someone doesn’t like. That goes with doing good journalism. It’s important to be independent and fact-based.
We are not staking out positions. We are reporting.
What are some of the big lessons and new insights about mental health you’ve learned as the main editor of Mind Site News?
The generational divide around mental health and stigma has been mind-blowing. There is almost no stigma remaining among young people. They are not afraid to talk about their mental health and how to comfortably address it as an issue. That is not true of people in my generation.
But there’s a bit of a flip side. In some cases, young people sometimes have too much ease in and too little precision in the way they discuss mental health sometimes, especially on social media, where there is misinformation and bad information and oversharing about mental health.
What’s on your wish list for future coverage?
Investigative reporting on a variety of mental health issues, solutions-focused reporting that looks at innovation and new ways of doing things. Certified community behavioral health centers. Youth-focused mental health issues and those of older folks.
We also do arts-and-culture coverage, we do book reviews. We are trying to cover a rich and textured way of looking at mental health. We want to do more coverage on the drastic shortage of mental health clinicians.
With the country’s mental health crisis getting measurably worse during COVID-19, more money than ever is coming down for mental health. How will that money be spent? Will it be used well?