I had the pleasure of speaking with Genevieve Reaume, mental health beat reporter with KATU in Portland, Oregon, and board member of ASHA International.
ML: Genevieve, what started your interest in mental health for youths?
GR: Once I learned more about my mental health as a high schooler, I got more open about it, but I still struggled a lot. I resolved some issues as I grew older, but circled back when I was offered the spot to be lead reporter on KIB (Kind Is Better), which was KATU’s year-long initiative to focus on youth mental health. That’s when I dove into it. I was passionate for the project because, when I was a youth, I had no idea what I was going through and went undiagnosed for a long time. It was an incredible opportunity. The year was transformative for me but also for our viewers. The teaching in journalism school prior was to avoid reporting on suicide for fear of copycat suicides. We learned that was wrong. In Portland, we decided we’d cover it and talk to these families because it was happening too much. We talked with a lot of families, and it was an incredibly hard year. In some senses, it was triggering for me. It was a lot to handle. We learned how to cover this topic in an appropriate way. We had to forge our own path because there was no guidebook for us. We took the mental health professionals’ lead and tried our best. That’s how I got engaged, through Kind is Better.
ML: Quite a journey.
GR: Yes, it was. There was one specific family close to my heart. I still talk to them. I interviewed a kid who struggled with severe social anxiety and it manifested into a lot of different things. He went to great lengths to get help. He was sent to a camp for summer, where he lived outdoors with therapists on-site and learned how to do that. We covered that, and he was compelling. His journey didn’t stop there. He didn’t leave camp cured. His life is still a rollercoaster, but I feel really connected to him. We shared a lot of stories that weighed on my heart.
ML: Which mental illness are you more particularly interested in?
ML: That’s a difficult time.
GR: Yeah, you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life. There’s all this pressure. There’s so much going on in high school, if you don’t talk about mental health, then you won’t know. It goes back to grade school when I had OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], and I didn’t learn what that was until seventh-grade health class. My teacher described it out of the textbook as someone who counts all the stairs when they walk up them. The next thing was there’s no treatment; they use a placebo. I was like, well, there’s no hope for me. That’s what I learned about it, and I had to deal with it. Luckily, I grew out of it.
ML: It sounds like a definition of OCD that would come out of a coloring book. It doesn’t even make sense.
GR: That’s the problem. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s what schools were teaching kids. A one-day discussion on mental illness covering OCD, depression, and anxiety with a three-sentence description as to what it is. How are you supposed to know what to do?
ML: It sounds like the textbook was giving it short shrift and stigmatizing it. As if this is all it is, so there’s nothing to worry about because it’s no more than this one-paragraph description.
GR: People say they have OCD, and maybe they do, but for me, I couldn’t even walk out of a room for an hour because of the OCD. There’s a lot to learn about how kids learn about mental health. I struggled and then I learned how to deal with it. I think that mental health and illness should be discussed way earlier than high school. It’s been such a touchy topic for so long that people try to avoid it, but kids who are 8, 9, 10 years old can have it. They can have suicidal ideations, but they don’t understand what they’re dealing with so they never ask for help. There needs to be a better curriculum.
ML: I couldn’t agree more. Mental illness shouldn’t be caricaturized or dumbed-down or condescending. That’s teaching the wrong thing. The illnesses get so abstracted that they become meaningless. The description in the book shouldn't be so mild that a kid who has severe symptoms can't see how they can use the resource or rely on it.
GR: It’s assuming they don’t struggle. I hope it’s changed since the early 2000s. There needs to be a definition, but also a safe space after a conversation like that. It needs to be more than a day. They can’t just learn a definition and move on with their life. It needs to be more thoughtfully discussed in the classroom and at home.
ML: [In your experience] as a KATU reporter, how has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental illness?
GR: It’s not good. Everyone is struggling. We set the groundwork with Kind Is Better to have more open discussions around mental health, but there are weekly discussions in the newscast about how COVID-19 is affecting kids. COVID-19 impacts the body, but now we’re talking about how it impacts the mind. There are kids who have been out of school for a year and have developed social anxiety and are struggling to make friends. They’re lonely. Those four years of high school are so transformative, and to lose out on half those years, it’s having an impact. We talk a lot with local groups like Lions for Life, which is a mental health helpline.
ML: What was Kind Is Better, and will it come back?
GR: It was a year-long initiative, and I don’t know if it’ll come back as Kind Is Better or as something else. What it did for us was set the groundwork to say maybe we don’t need an initiative; we just talk about it as part of our newscast without shying away from mental health stories.