Katie Kenny and Laura Walters

As Stuff reporters, Katie Kenny and Laura Walters both spend a lot of time covering stories about health, mental health, and social issues.

They decided to dig deeper into the area of mental health with the help of a New Zealand Mental Health Media Grant.

The project, called Through the Maze, charts the evolution of mental health services in New Zealand, from the large mental health institutions to the current community care model.

The media grant enabled Katie and Laura to take the time to meet people face-to-face, and present stories often missing from media reports due to restricted word counts and time pressures.
Katie Kenny and Laura Walters
“We knew being able to travel around the country, and meet people in person, would make for more informed and compelling coverage of the issue,” Katie says.

“The research and interviews required for this project enabled us to develop a thorough understanding of the subject area — something that will stick with us and influence future reporting.”

The two talented journalists were mindful not to limit their stories to those from larger centres, but to find stories in the smaller towns and rural communities of New Zealand as well.

The pair interviewed more than 60 people and received more than 50 submissions from people around the country who had been engaged in mental health services in all sorts of ways.

“Among those were Debra Lampshire, who was a patient at Kingseat for 18 years, Judge Ken Mason, whose 1996 report is often described as a major turning point in New Zealand’s mental health history and then Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman,” Laura says.

“We also combed through archives and old newspaper articles, read hundreds of pages of books, policy and research articles, and paid a small fortune in public library fines.”

Providing space for the array of voices

Mental health is a complex area with an array of voices. Initially, as many journalists do, Katie and Laura set out to uncover the shortcomings and failings of the system and society.

“However, we quickly realised we had to take a more nuanced approach in order to highlight issues in a way that wouldn’t cause further harm to both mental health consumers and providers,” Katie says.  

They sought to tell the stories of those with lived experience of mental distress outside the circle of people commonly quoted in the media, but encountered challenges they needed to work through in order to make the project a success and do justice to these stories.

“We came up against some hostility when interviewing mental health professionals, early in the project. Many were wary of media after past experiences and it took time to foster relationships, build trust and transparency to get meaningful information from people,” Katie and Laura say.

“We think this less adversarial approach helped us get a good range of on-the-record video interviews and helped to build a community of people with an interest in different areas of mental health.”

Throughout the reporting process Katie and Laura kept in touch with their sources, and got feedback on who to talk to next and how to present the information.

They wanted the relevant communities to feel invested in the project from the get go, and to use Through the Maze as a resource for years to come.

Raising awareness of mental distress

After the project was published, Katie and Laura received more positive feedback for Through the Maze, on social media, in-person, and via email, than for any other editorial project in the past.

“It was heartening to hear from mental health workers who said they were circulating the project among their workplace. Others told us that reading the personal accounts helped them come to terms with their own experiences of mental distress,” Laura says.

They hope the series will continue to be a resource to inform people about the history of mental health in New Zealand.

“We have worked hard to present a balanced, accurate, and fair perspective. The more people who read it, think about it, talk about it, the more we raise awareness and destigmatise mental health,” Katie and Laura say.

During the project, Katie and Laura made sure they looked after their own mental health and wellbeing by sharing the load, talking through any worries or issues with each other and family, exercising, spending time in nature and catching up with friends.

The Through the Maze banner (above) was created by Jemma Cheer.

Through the Maze: our mental health journey includes four online features, a 20-minute mini-documentary, plus additional stories.