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Keeping The Lights On: How A Liberian Journalist is Focusing on Mental Health Issues

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Monrovia – Liberia has been devastated by 14 years of civil unrest and was hit in 2014 by Ebola virus outbreak – both situations left a traumatic effect on almost all Liberians.

One would think that with these traumatic events, Liberia will take mental health seriously due to the effects accompanying such tragic chapter in our nation history. 

But little or no attention is given to the mental health sector. There is only one inpatient service center in the country that caters to a population of four million people. And there’s a dearth in trained mental health clinicians in the country as well.

In spite of these odds, journalists like Al-Varney Rogers who are keeping light on this sector and holding duty bearers accountable through his reportage.

Rogers became interested in mental health reporting after attending a seminar focused on reporting on mental health facilitated by Dr. Janice Cooper of the Carter Center. At the training, Dr. Cooper spoke to the aspiring journalists about mental illness and best practices for reporting on them.

Inspired by the workshop, Rogers started regularly reporting on mental health with mentorship from Travis Lupick. 

One of his first stories in the area was about the struggle to rebuild Liberia’s mental health sector after years of civil unrest.

When Al-Varney first began reporting on mental illness there was only one medical facility that dealt with mental illness in the country and it only had 20 beds.

The lone facility, E.S Grant, was supposed to serve the country. There were less than 30 mental health clinicians and only one practicing psychiatrist. Al-Varney explained that many people thought those suffering mental illness were bewitched.

He was overjoyed when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2016 announced the mental health legislation in her State of the Nation address in January.

Many believe that journalists like Al-Varney and their sharp, consistent reporting that inspired the former president to finally take the action.

He served as the first organizing Coordinator of the Mental Health Reporters Network and recently served as a speaker at the World Science Journalism Conference along with Carter Center Global Mental Health Advisor Dr. Janice Cooper.

He used the opportunity to tell his audience the incredible work journalists in Liberia are doing in spite of little or no resources.

He furthered that reporters have to go extra miles in covering mental health stories and how they usually convince their editors to see mental health articles as important as political stories.

 “I had the opportunity to share not just my story but also the stories of several Liberian journalists who are doing amazing job reporting mental health in spite of limited resources,” Rogers averred.

“This conference was an eye-opener to see the global effort being mobilized to combat stigma against mental illness.”

For Rogers, the conference was an opportunity to see amazing jobs done by others Journalists around the world and how people appreciate the little effort done locally that has a global effect.

Upon his return from the World Science Journalists Conference in Lausanne Switzerland, Rogers along with his colleague Zeze Ballah and the network organized training from community radio journalists from across the country.

The training, which was supported by Carter Center Liberia Mental Health Program, focused on how to report on persons with mental health conditions.

Rogers shared knowledge at the World Science Journalists Conference in Switzerland.

The former coordinator thanked all MHRN members, the Carter Center Mental Health program family especially Dr. Janice Cooper for the level of achievements and recognition thus far. 

Early this year, Rogers led training on anti-stigma reporting on mental health for university students studying journalism.

This training was meant to prepare the next generation of journalists on how to report mental health articles and help reduce the stigma.

Rogers praised the former Carter Center Mental Health program Lead, Dr. Cooper, and the current program-lead Benedict Dossen for the support to the network.

“I’m amazed by the push and energy both the former and current heads of Carter Center Mental Health Program are putting into the network and ensuring that journalists reporting on mental health get the needed attention,” he said.

“There’s lot of journalism programs out there and I’m hoping other journalists can be exposed to such opportunities.”

He said that “there’s still a lot out there to be done,” adding that when stigma is reduced significantly then it’s time to shed light on his work.

“I have been avoiding this interview because for me, I didn’t start reporting on mental health to get any attention thus having the microphone swing from my hands to my mouth,” Rogers said.

Al-Varney Rogers is a Liberian journalist and 2017 International Visitor Leadership Program fellow sponsored by State Department of the United States of America. He is also a candidate of LLB at the Louise Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia. He holds a B.A in Mass Communication from the University of Liberia.

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