Some Pennsylvania colleges reopened for students this semester, and now more than 250 students and staff have tested positive for the coronavirus across the state. Young people are often criticized for socializing in large groups during the pandemic, but as many as 75% of young adults have reported increased mental health issues in recent months.
To learn more about the health of young people and how we cover this topic, I asked health reporter Bethany Ao about her job and what particular issues she’s focusing on in the pandemic.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with health reporter Bethany Ao, who covers young adults with an eye toward mental, sexual, and preventative health.
Why did you become a reporter and what drew you to covering health?
I became a reporter because I loved writing and asking questions about things I didn’t understand. Years later, I’ve learned that while sometimes we can get bogged down with other responsibilities — ultimately that’s still what it’s about! I started at the Inquirer as a features reporter but switched to my current beat because I was excited by the opportunity to tell stories about a population that flies under the radar both in local news and health coverage in general — young people. I came into the beat wanting to write stories that made them feel like someone was paying attention to the health issues that they face, like mental health.
How is your job different now than before the pandemic?
What I was doing before the pandemic now feels light years away. Before the pandemic, I was still learning the ropes of health reporting, like how to read research papers. I had a whole list of stories I really wanted to get to. But then everything was upended by COVID-19, and I spent months mostly writing about the impact social distancing had on mental health. And then the protests happened, so I wrote about why communities of color are more at risk for mental health issues due to racial stressors and problems in our society. I’m slowly returning to some stories I wanted to write before the pandemic happened now, but I approach everything with what I call a “COVID lens.” So much has changed since March, and my beat is no different.
What is a developing story you’re keeping an eye on or continually reporting on?
All the behavioral health experts I talk to have mentioned how in a matter of months, the country will probably be facing a mental health crisis. I’m not an alarmist person, but when everyone brings it up in interviews, it’s definitely something I have my eye on. I’m particularly interested in how this affects young people. We know that mental health was already something this age group struggled with before all of this, especially those who identify as Black or LGBTQ. I’m also interested in how teletherapy and telehealth will continue to shape the mental health landscape. Many therapists have talked about how they’ve been able to continue providing services through those platforms, and I’m intrigued by whether this shift will be permanent.
What is a story you wrote recently that you’re proud of?
I recently finished reporting a story about the mental health issues graduate students face. It was a story I started in February, but it’s been on my mind for years. I have a lot of friends who are currently graduate students, some of whom deal with depression and anxiety, and writing this story helped me gain a better understanding of all the problems in academia that can really chip away at someone’s mental health. Plus, I wanted to open a conversation in mainstream media about the challenges they face — I think so often when we talk about mental health on college campuses, we lump graduate students in with undergraduates, who have a totally different experience.
Is there a news story that skated under the radar that you thought was interesting or important to know about?
The New York Times published an investigation recently about privacy concerns with Talkspace, an app that connects licensed therapists to clients via text message. It’s an app that colleges and workplaces are increasingly partnering with to help make therapy more accessible to people who may not be able to afford it otherwise. I thought the story was really intriguing — it talks about how even though Talkspace is trying to lower the barrier of entry to therapy, they are first and foremost a company that may not be above mining really sensitive conversations between clients and therapists for data. As telehealth continues to be incredibly relevant in our lives, this is a real concern for many people.
What is something you wish more people understood about your job?
That I’m really mindful of each and every one of my subjects’ experiences. With mental health, people experience things like anxiety and depression in totally different ways, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Also, that I get many of my story ideas from people emailing me about things they’re thinking about, so please don’t hesitate to reach out!
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Whether your kids are going back to school in person or virtually, safety is probably top of mind. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia brought together two of its experts to field some of the questions parents are grappling with as they decide what is best for their child. Their advice includes choosing a good mask for your child and teaching them safety rules before going back to school in person. For virtual learning, establishing a routine will help your child be more focused on school. Check out the rest of their tips here.
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