Rosalynn Carter's mental health advocacy changed journalism — and journalists
So much of who I am today is the result of receiving a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship from The Carter Center 15 years ago.
When I met former first lady Rosalynn Carter in Atlanta in 2008, I was accomplished — having written one book and under contract for a second — but I was also broken after three years reporting in Iraq and an equal amount of time chronicling challenges veterans faced back home. I wrote without purpose, drifting from story to story and full of rage at what I saw as the U.S. government's failure to take seriously the human consequences of the war it began.
Mrs. Carter was the first person to ever ask me how my journalism would make an impact. It was such an obvious question that it changed my life.
These days, the question of impact is regularly discussed in newsrooms, especially on investigative desks. But at the time, considering the purpose of one's journalism was often considered taboo.
Her challenge, laid out softly in her gentle Southern drawl, gave me a way to channel my trauma. I could deploy it, and the entire journalism toolbox, into making people's lives better.
All my work since and the change it has made — the fact the VA now tracks veteran suicides in an effort to prevent them, that 500,000 fewer veterans are waiting for disability benefits, that 100,000 fewer are on government-prescribed opioids and more — can all be tracked back to Mrs. Carter and her vision that journalism should have a greater purpose, to fight stigma and make change.
As she did with her other fellows, she watched my work closely, sending congratulatory letters when my reporting won major journalism awards. She took me seriously, which made me take myself seriously.
"From the earliest days of her time as first lady, she always believed that journalists were key to changing public attitudes about mental health and mental illness," Kathy Cade, who worked alongside Mrs. Carter in the White House and now serves as vice chair of The Carter Center, told me last week. "The fellows program has demonstrated that in so many different ways."
Since Carter's death Nov. 19 at age 96, I've been crying — as I share memories with some of the more than 200 other journalists who have held the fellowship that bears her name. Even those who held the fellowship after Mrs. Carter's health began to slip, when she could no longer attend in person and provide notes, spoke of the impact she had on them.
"I understood that for her it was a personal mission and I knew that having my name associated with her name, there was something in her name that I wanted to honor," said Brett Sholtis, who, as a reporter for public radio station WITF in 2021, used the Rosalynn Carter fellowship to investigate violence against prisoners with mental illness in Pennsylvania jails. "You don't want to let her down."
Sholtis, whose brother Bryan lived with a serious mental illness and died from complications of drug use, said that for him, and many others, the fellowship was also deeply personal. "She created a space," he said, providing a community for journalists to route their pain "into something productive."
Soreath Hok, a Cambodian American journalist, applied for the fellowship while at public radio station KVPR in Fresno, California, with a proposal to use it to document the long-term psychological impact of the Khmer Rouge genocide on Cambodian refugees in California.
It was only once Hok began the fellowship, she said, that she learned that Carter had visited refugee camps in Thailand as first lady and paved the way for Cambodian refugees to come to the United States, including eventually Hok's family.
"She did so much to help me and my family when we were refugees," Hok told me. "I'm so grateful to the Carter family for all of us who were born into tragedy."
The fact that one of those refugees would eventually be a fellow in Carter's program and win a national Edward R. Murrow Award, was deeply meaningful to both Hok and Cade, one of the former first lady's longtime aides, and shows the special way Carter's righteous acts compounded over decades, creating a more just world.
Carter was a visionary. When she established the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship in 1996, the entire conception of mental health as a journalism beat was not well established. Screaming headlines in newspapers and chyrons on the nightly news proclaimed people to be "crazy" or "insane." The idea of reporting with the expressed purpose of fighting stigma and improving conditions for people with mental illness was foreign to most editors and publishers.
Through deliberate work over more than two decades with hundreds of reporters, Carter changed that.
Today, her legacy is a culture shift in the media and a large community of journalists working together to change the world — including me.
Aaron Glantz is a two-time Peabody Award winning journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist, who currently serves as senior editor at The Fuller Project, the global nonprofit newsroom focused on women. He was a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism at The Carter Center from 2008-09, and used the fellowship to write his second book The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (UC Press). In 2020, he co-founded the Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grant for Mental Health Investigative Journalism as part of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships. He lives in San Francisco.
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