(Editor’s Note: This story was republished in part at Better.net in alignment with a partnership between the two nonprofits: The Record Community News and Make it Better Media Group.)
Meg Kissinger walked into a Milwaukee laundromat in 2006 that was across from a group home for those suffering from mental illness. Inside, Kissinger noticed a woman with an intense stare and jagged teeth. Kissinger — a journalist focusing on housing limitations for those with mental illness – began talking with her.
Not only was the woman funny, but also she was from the same hometown as Kissinger: Wilmette. The woman also knew Kissinger’s sister, who died of suicide.
Nineteen years after her sister’s death, Kissinger’s younger brother also took his own life. Kissinger had witnessed the cruel and relentless effect of mental illness. She knew she needed to write about it and made a journalistic career out of shining a light on the inadequacies of mental-health resources.
In her memoir, “While You Were Out,” set to be released in 2023 by MacMillan Publishing, Kissinger shares her family’s experiences with mental illness, including the loss of two siblings to suicide.
Meg Kissinger always loved to write. When she was at Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, she contributed to the school newspaper, Crown, and continued the path at Depauw University, working with The DePauw all four years.
She enjoyed current events, as well. Something she learned at an early age.
“I’m from a big family of eight kids. When you’re from a big family, there’s a lot going on, it’s very newsy,” she said. “There’s always something happening. I loved paying attention to what was going on around me.”
After college Kissinger worked at the Cincinnati Post, where she covered crime and courts. In 1983, she went to Milwaukee and began working at the Milwaukee Journal — which became the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — alongside Dave Umhoefer, an investigative reporter.
Unhoefer said Kissinger’s work has always been thoughtful.
“Her best-known work revolves around humane coverage of people with mental illness, and how they’re neglected by society as a whole and end up on the street homeless and forgotten,” Umhoefer said.
And the work’s impact was undeniable.
Kissinger’s investigative reporting on housing conditions for people with mental illness led to more than 600 new housing units in the city.
She also was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for reporting she and Susanne Rust did in 2008 on the government’s failure to protect people from chemicals found in household products.
“It starts with telling stories, writing about people, and looking at them as human beings, and getting other people to think that way as well,” Kissinger said. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a career that let me tell these stories, I hope that the stories open some eyes.”
Rust, a science reporter, who said Kissinger was all that and more.
“She’s so much fun. It’s such a delight to work with her,” Rust said. “Newsrooms are often cutthroat places to be; Meg is not like that at all. She couldn’t have been more kind and supportive and encouraging. She was sort of a mentor to me.”
As for her work championing those with mental illness, Kissinger said that while it may be instinct to look past certain individuals, people with mental illness are human and deserve to be treated as such.
“I write about people as human beings,” she said. “We don’t say schizophrenic; it’s a human being who has schizophrenia. We write about homeless people not as a burden but as people who struggle.”
Kissinger also explained that the press has a role in advocating for people with mental illness, saying “We’re the portal for a lot of people in the world. It’s important that journalists have a true understanding of the problems the mentally ill face so we can accurately depict them and lead to change.”
Sadly, however, a lot of changes has yet to occur.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 11.3 percent of adults with serious mental illness did not have insurance coverage in 2020, and 148 million Americans live in an area with a mental health professional shortage.
And, as of 2020, less than 4 percent of clinical psychologists specialized in child or adolescent care, according to the American Psychological Association.
“We don’t have adequate medical care,” Kissinger said. “There are not enough beds or outpatient treatments. There’s a huge shortage of psychologists, especially child psychologists and there’s a wait for people to get their children to care. When you’re in agony like that, we wouldn’t allow (for it) if you had a sprained ankle or a cancerous mole.”
Kissinger’s passion stems not only from her personal history, which includes the death of two siblings to suicide, but also from her caring personality.
Colleagues described her as an inspirational person to be around and learn from.
“She just made it fun. It’s a very serious job, there’s a lot of stress and pressure. She made it fun, and she made it important,” Umhoefer said. “There was a real sense of mission when you worked with Meg — mission might not be strong enough, almost a crusade.”
Rust added, “Meg is a fantastic person. She is fair but at the same time skeptical. She’s the epitome of a fair reporter and a good reporter.”
Kissinger now works as a professor at Columbia University in New York, where she teaches courses on investigative reporting and the coverage of mental health.
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