Inside the New York Times: Polling Mental Health Professionals to Find Out What They Thought About the Mental Health Implications of Covid-19

From an Inside the New York Times story by Kate Dwyer headlined “A Big-Picture Mental Health Check”:

Over the summer, when The Times’s Well columnist Tara Parker-Pope thought about the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, she considered 2020 the “year of the virus,” while 2021 was shaping up to be the “year of the vaccine.” What might 2022 hold?

Her gut told her that the next several years could tell a story of recovery, of learning to live with the virus and of the collateral damage that the pandemic has caused. “It seemed really clear that a big part of that story is going to be mental health,” Ms. Parker-Pope said.

Ms. Parker-Pope wanted to poll mental health professionals to find out what they thought about long-lasting mental health implications of Covid-19. And she wanted to hear how they were bearing as they helped others cope. She shared the idea with others on Well’s team, including Lori Leibovich, Well’s editor; Christina Caron, Well’s mental health reporter; Melonyce McAfee, a Times senior editor; and Toby Bilanow, the desk’s deputy editor who agreed on the urgency of a big-picture check-in with the workers on the front lines of mental health treatment. To reach mental health professionals, they decided to distribute the survey through Psychology Today’s professional membership. The resulting survey revealed illuminating information about the state of the mental health crisis.

“We wanted to make sure the survey was asking the right questions,” Ms. Parker-Pope said. “I reached out to different people in the psychology community and asked them for advice and guidance and feedback on it.” By the time the survey was finalized, which was about two months after Well started the project, the team realized they needed an experienced data journalist to help them parse through the insights. So, they commissioned the freelance reporter Mónica Cordero Sancho to find patterns and trends in the data.

The survey went out on Nov. 9, and when it closed a week later, 1,320 therapists had answered 15 multiple-choice questions. The Times learned, among other things, that nine out of 10 therapists said the number of clients seeking care was on the rise, and that about one in seven of the respondents cited racial justice issues as a top reason that clients were seeking therapy.

As a mental health reporter, Ms. Caron said she didn’t find the answers too surprising. “This was essentially what I had been hearing from different providers,” she said. “However, what really struck me was the consistency. Therapists in all 50 states had grave concerns.”

They had also added open-ended questions so that therapists could submit observations. “I honestly think I read all 1,320 comments,” Ms. Parker-Pope said. The comments showed two additional trends: “We didn’t ask a question about therapist burnout, but it was clear in the comments,” she said. “We also found a silver lining. Many therapists said that the stigma around therapy has really been reduced. That older people, people of color, younger people, conservatives, liberals — people from all walks of life — are seeking therapy, and they’re less afraid to seek therapy because everybody is struggling.”

Once the survey results were in, the team had just a week and a half to crunch the data, then Ms. Parker-Pope and Ms. Caron had a week to interview sources and write the story. Two photo editors, Gina Privitere and Christy Harmon, set up 10 photo shoots across the country.

Meanwhile, Jaspal Riyait, the Times art director on the package, says her team brought the visuals to life in three days. At the top of the digital presentation, words like “lonely” and “uncertain,” which were pulled from the survey results, cascade down the article as readers scroll; those words were designed by the interactive designer Danny DeBelius with emotional resonance in mind: It’s “like our version of a word cloud,” Ms. Riyait said. The most common words — anxious, overwhelmed — appear the largest….

Since publishing the results, Ms. Parker-Pope can tell the topic has resonated with readers by the discussions on social media. The story has garnered more than 600 comments and, Ms. Parker-Pope said, has prompted discussion within the mental health community.

One of the biggest conclusions in the project is that therapists across the country are overwhelmed by the pandemic and many of them have to turn away patients as demand for their services increase. “I think the lesson is that the therapists are shouldering the entire burden of this mental health crisis,” Ms. Parker-Pope said. “They’re really on their own. And they’re basically saying: ‘We can’t keep doing this. We can’t carry this alone.’”

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