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Pulitzer Center Update May 28, 2024

Displacement, Material Security, and Mental Health: Dispatches from Campus Consortium Reporting Fellows

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Emanuella Evans explores the mental health crisis among South Sudanese in America, sharing...


Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium Reporting Fellows, who bring their reporting projects to the public, hail from over 40 public, private, community, and public health colleges and universities in North America and Qatar. 

As part of the Campus Consortium Network, member campuses and the Pulitzer Center select Fellows to receive funding and editorial support from the Center's staff. Also, Pulitzer Center grantees share their work with students and faculty. You can read more about the Reporting Fellowship program here and recent on-campus programming here

On May 16, 2024, three former Campus Consortium Reporting Fellows joined the Pulitzer Center for a webinar titled “Mind and Matter: Healing and Mental Health in a Conflict-Driven World.” They included 2021 Fellow Emma Evans, a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism; 2022 Fellow Diana Rayes, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and 2023 Fellow Blessed Sheriff, a fifth-year medical student student at Brown University's Warren Alpert Medical School and a graduate of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

They shared lessons and insights from their reporting, and they spoke about the relationship between mental health and material security and how to start conversations about mental health where the subject may be considered uncommon or taboo. 

“The projects by Blessed, Diana, and Emma helped take the discussion beyond another classroom lecture, bringing in lots of compelling true-life issues,” said audience member Emmanuel Wongibe. 

Evans said she took care when she interviewed subjects for her project The War After the War, which documents South Sudanese youth in the U.S. navigating questions about generational trauma, migration, and healing. 

“I was able to be a little more careful and intentional and provide space for breaks and things like that to try and avoid re-traumatization,” she said. 

Deaths by suicide in Evans’ community prompted discussions about mental health. “Healing […] can come from having these conversations,” she said

Young and old South Sudanese people in America grapple with questions of home. “For the majority of the youth I talked to, home would just be both [America and South Sudan]. What is necessary to call something home?” Evans asked. “What kind of safety and security is necessary? What kind of community is necessary?” 

Rayes, whose project Ukrainian Refugees in Turkey: Displacement Impact on Mental Health highlights mental health and psychosocial needs of recently displaced Ukrainians in transit to Turkey, emphasized that “[home] is a relative term. […] You’ll always have memories of where home is and what it should be like. I think that’s part of the struggle for those who are displaced because they don’t have that closure.” 

Rayes led with active consent and transparency while reporting in Turkey. She shared her background and the aims of her work. 

This kind of “trust-building and also empathy, and also sensitivity […] helped make […] [the] reporting a lot richer and a lot more accurate," said Sheriff of Rayes’ and Evans’ work. Sheriff's project, Mind Over Matter: Inside the Movement to Transform Mental Health in Sierra Leone, followed the first class of psychiatry residents trained in Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

Sheriff, who was in Freetown during a protest about inflation, said Sierra Leone’s material inequality presents health care challenges: “The families that can afford […] basic necessities like food and water are also the families that can afford the medications that their loved ones need. […] Healing becomes a privilege for those who can afford it.”

“Having [mental health] resources on-hand is really important,” said Rayes. “It’s our responsibility as reporters […] to make sure that [we’re] approaching this issue with sensitivity.” 

Technologies like hotlines, virtual care, even chatbots could help governments and humanitarian groups scale interventions, according to Sheriff. 

Rayes, however, said that uptake is low because of “a lack […] of digital literacy and […] awareness.” These costly digital tools can actually put resources farther out of reach for migrants and other vulnerable groups. 

Sheriff criticized Western medicine’s technical reliance and research hierarchy: “When we prioritize randomized control trials over qualitative studies, […] numbers are more important than people's experiences. […] Those diseases that don’t have the correct resources to be explored through randomized control trials are those that are ignored and typically in the Global South.” 

Mental health paradigms need “cultural humility,” according to Sheriff. “There’s no one-to-one comparison of symptoms because the very ways that we express and communicate psychological distress are just different.” 

Evans noted that some of her subjects spoke about community wellness before individual wellness, the “opposite of how I learned mental health in the [United States].” 

All the panelists plan to extend their reporting. 

“Our stories have been put out there. I put my story out there as a way of creating collaborators, people that are passionate about this work and feel strongly about the topics we were talking about,” Sheriff told the audience.


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