Why Did The Washington Post Not Invite A Key Player To Discuss The State Of Mental Health Care In America?

(6-13-18) A core principle of good journalism is that reporters make certain they cover all sides of an important issue.

Sadly, it appears that my former employer, The Washington Post, has dropped the ball today by hosting a summit to “discuss the state of mental health care in the U.S.” without inviting any well-known individuals who actually have recovered or been through the mental health care system as patients.

Every day, there are forums, panels, and seminars about mental health held in the U.S. but the fact that a newspaper as prominent and influential as the Post would exclude a spokesperson with lived experience is surprising and disappointing. (In fairness, because the Post seminar is happening while I write this, I have not asked its organizer, Michael Falcone at the Post, to explain his actions, but I will  be happy to post his answer if he chooses to reply to this blog.)

Until told otherwise, it would seem the Post’s actions are subtly marginalizing persons such as my son and those who deal with mental health problems, suggesting they either are not capable of participating in a thoughtful discussion or that their voices are not important.

I was alerted to the Post’s decision in an email this morning from A. J. French (see below) who wrote that she had notified  Falcone at the Post and the newspaper’s co-sponsor Cigna in advance of today’s event, arguing that a peer or individual in recovery should be included in any discussion about the status of mental health care.  French offered Falcone the names of several activists who could explain what it is like to live daily with a mental disorder including: Paolo del Vecchio, director of Mental Health Services at SAMHSA and Harvey Rosenthal, Executive Director at the New York State Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitate Services.

French stated that the organizers at the Post didn’t respond to her emails.

None of the experts invited at today’s forum is  known in the mental health community as persons who have overcome the symptoms of a mental illness.

The Post and Cigna also chose two senators, Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) who are not especially known for being mental health advocates, certainly not on par with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R.-La.) who pushed through major mental health care legislation during the final days of the Obama administration and continue, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.) and others to be strong supporters of mental health care legislation.

In 2007, after the mass murder committed by a troubled student on the Virginia Tech campus, I wrote an Op Ed that was published in the Washington Post chastising then Virginia Governor Tim Kaine for not including an individual with lived experience on an blue ribbon panel investigating the shooting. I felt having someone who had a mental illness describe the obstacles that they faced would be helpful to learning how to avoid future shootings.

For many years, concerned parents, relatives, friends, psychiatrists and even government officials have tried to help people with mental disorders by finding ways to effectively treat their illnesses. They have learned that the best teachers are often those who have struggled personally with mental health problems and have found ways to recover.

In not appointing a panel member who has publicly struggled with a debilitating mental illness, Kaine has missed an opportunity to remind the nation that the shooter and his actions do not accurately reflect the millions of Americans who have brain disorders. Naming such a person would help reduce fears about people with mental illnesses at a time when the shooter’s psychosis-fueled executions have increased stigma.

Just as important, someone who has experienced the isolation and self-loathing that often accompany depression and serious mental disorders would be in a better position than others to recognize, understand and explain why someone such as the shooter may have avoided seeking and receiving help before it was too late. The shooter, of course, is not representative of Americans who have had diagnoses of mental illness. Some more familiar faces include CBS journalist Mike Wallace, actress Patty Duke, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), and writers such as William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut. Most Americans with mental health problems are simply ordinary people dealing with what can be extremely difficult and cruel disorders.

I am delighted the Washington Post and Cigna decided to host an event about mental health, but the planner’s apparent decision to exclude someone with a mental illness undercuts the newspaper’s and Cigna’s  good intentions and is an embarrassment for a newspaper that has consistently editorialized for reforming our mental health care system.

Copy of A. J. French letter to Cigna CEO

To David Cordani,

I hope you are well.

I have reached out to Michael Falcone from Washington Post Live and did not receive a response so now I am reaching out to your staff.  It is absolutely archaic that a media outlet like the Post or a disability insurance company like Cigna would have a mental health dialog and exclude persons who have disclosed mental health recovery and who are recognized as leaders in the mental health recovery community.  Please see message below and invite some of us to participate in the Mental Health and Well-Being in America discussion scheduled for June 13th.  It’s not too late, but failure to be inclusive in equal proportion to other represented stakeholders in the most egregious form of discrimination which exists.  Can you please explain to me, a person who lives with a psychiatric disability, why people in recovery should not be morally outraged?  I’m asking you to make this right.  Please immediately invite some of us to participate.

Good grief, there are so many of us who are qualified to speak on this kind of platform!  You could approach Paulo DelVichio or Nanette Larson or Harvey Rosenthal or Leah Harris or Dan Fisher or Cheryl Sharp or this list could go on forever with names of individuals who openly disclose their personal recovery and are subject matter experts – and tremendous assets – in the mental health arena.  Again, I’m asking you to make this right.  Please immediately invite some of us to participate.  

Thank you for your careful consideration of this matter.  I hope you will attempt to address this matter.



AJ French

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.