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When Brittany Lyte’s heartbreaking story about an aging mother’s relentless efforts at providing a lifeline to her severely mentally ill daughter was published last week, she got an email from a lawyer.
Lyte figured he was offering legal help for the mother, Marti Claussen. Not so. He wanted to talk with her about his own experience with a mentally ill child.
“I think the stories resonated with a lot of people with adult mentally ill children because a lot of people go through the same thing,” Lyte said. “Parents know the public might not understand, so there is still a lot of shame … And they don’t even want to talk about it with their family and friends.”
Marti Claussen sits with her daughter Christie Claussen during the weekly meet-up for lunch.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Let alone a reporter.
Lyte, who has been reporting on Hawaii’s strained mental health system for the last six months, was turned down by several parents she approached to talk about caring for their adult children. Then a mental health advocate who runs a parent support group told Lyte about Claussen and her daughter, Christie Claussen.
“She said ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’’’ Lyte said. “After dealing with this for so many years, Marti was an open book.”
Reporting for this kind of storytelling isn’t quick or easy – or devoid of difficult ethical questions.
Claussen gradually unspooled her story over weekly breakfasts through the summer and fall at Anna Miller’s Restaurant in Aiea.
And Lyte had several conversations with Christie, as well as acting as a fly-on-the-wall when Marti took Christie on their weekly outings to McDonald’s. Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum and videographer April Estrellon also visited Christie inside the Institute for Human Services shelter, where she has lived off and on for the last six years, and on forays with her mother to fast-food restaurants.
Civil Beat had the participation and consent of Christie, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
But Lyte noted, “At the same time, I kept asking myself does she really have the capacity to consent to what she is consenting … And I was nervous at first, since I’d never had a conversation with a person with that level of mental illness.”
In the end, Civil Beat’s reporting was based on Marti’s retelling of Christie’s troubled life – fleeting relationships with men that resulted in three kids that she couldn’t take care of, her meth use, her delusions and difficulties staying in any kind of housing, her yearning to live with her mom.
Brittany Lyte speaking at Honolulu Civil Beat’s February storytelling event, “Understanding Mental Illness.”
Lyte pressed Marti to repeatedly go over the story, and she corroborated the details with Christie’s caregivers.
Deciding what stayed out of the story was as important as what got published. Lyte said she wanted to make sure she wasn’t sensationalizing or demeaning the mother or the daughter.
“I think you don’t want to unnecessarily share painful details. At the same time, you want to be real,” she said.
Later, she added, “Telling this kind of story is so intimate, it’s like walking into someone’s bedroom.”
The value of this kind of unvarnished, deeply personal story is the ability to go beyond stereotypes or reducing the mentally ill to statistics.
Just a few days before Lyte’s story was published, Civil Beat co-sponsored a sold-out event with the Ka Waiwai Collective, where several people told their stories of dealing with their own mental illness or those of their loved ones.
“You maybe start to care more about the issue when it isn’t tucked away in the corner,” Lyte said. “I think that’s critical to building a community to move policy and policymakers on mental health.”
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