July 5, 2011, 1:31 pm
By The Carter Center
Reporter Michael Biesecker’s coverage of mental health issues began with a high-speed car chase following a robbery. In the course of Biesecker’s investigation, he found that although the driver was in a psychotic state two weeks before the crime, he had been turned away from the state’s psychiatric hospital.
“We began researching why people were not getting help, why the hospital was so full that it could not accept a patient who clearly needed treatment,” Biesecker said.
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Thus began a yearlong investigation by Biesecker, a reporter for North Carolina newspapers News and Observer (Raleigh) and Charlotte Observer. He received a 2009–2010 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, a competitive Carter Center program assisting journalists who report on mental health.
Biesecker investigated the state’s mental health system and found that, as the state shifted to privatized care, more than two years passed with many patients not receiving treatment.
He and his colleagues wrote a five-part series showing how the state had wasted more than $425 million on nonexistent or ineffective community support services and chronicled 82 deaths in state hospitals.
“The series had some immediate results,” Biesecker said. “The head of the state’s mental health system resigned. A new law was passed that all deaths in state mental hospitals be reported to a medical examiner, which to our surprise was not a requirement already.”
This high-profile reporting dovetails with the Center’s goals for the fellow-ship program: increase the accuracy of stories on mental illnesses in the media, thereby reducing public stigma. Fellows maintain their journalistic independence, and The Carter Center provides support by helping to educate fellows and serving as a resource. Since writing his stories on North Carolina’s mental health system, Biesecker has continued to shed light on the plight of those with mental illnesses in the state. Recent stories have focused on the state’s prisons, which are serving as de facto psychiatric hospitals.
“This is a fight worth fighting, even when you don’t see results every day,” Biesecker said. “Rosalynn Carter has been fighting for 35 years, and I’ve only been doing it for five. I’ve got a good bit left in me.”
Learn more about the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism >