It’s confounding and tragic that mental health struggles are so widespread and still so stigmatized that people suffer and even die without seeking help.

And for those who do reach out, a shortage of care providers often leaves them helpless.

We want to help change that.

On Sept. 19, The Seattle Times will launch The Mental Health Project, an initiative to report on the many facets of mental and behavioral health. If journalism is meant to shine a light on important issues facing society, then it’s hard to think of a more worthy endeavor at this time.

Evidence points to a mental health crisis growing in the Northwest, across the country and around the world — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic fallout and the nation’s racial reckoning. Anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other disorders are straining our schools, criminal-justice systems and social services, and disproportionately hitting vulnerable people including people of color.

To tackle this weighty and complex subject, we are building a team of two reporters, an editor and an engagement editor.

The team will define the scope of the problem and put the Seattle region and Washington state in context with the rest of the nation and world. We’ll describe the many types of mental illness people experience, share promising treatments, and explore advances in psychiatric care led by local researchers. We’ll help people find care and probe whether government agencies, nonprofits and health providers are doing the right things — or enough of them — to make a difference. Along the way, we’ll check in with you regularly to ensure we’re asking the right questions and telling the stories you want and need to know.

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Here’s how you can help direct our mental health coverage

This initiative has been funded for two years by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families, and we hope to continue it through additional fundraising. 

Our team will be led by editor Diana Samuels, who has been directing our law and justice coverage since joining The Seattle Times in 2019. Before that, she was an editor and reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans for three years. As a reporter there, she led a multimedia project exploring the lives of girls in the South that included live events, videos and a social media campaign.

Samuels said the COVID-19 pandemic has “put into stark relief the necessity and value of talking about and treating mental health issues in the U.S.”

“For decades, the country has used its emergency rooms, jails and prisons as a broken mental health system, and the results are seen in our homelessness crisis and the revolving doors of incarceration,” she said. “The collective trauma of the pandemic has had profound effects on mental health worldwide, with its impact on children particularly carrying the potential to affect an entire generation for decades to come.”

Samuels will lead a team of three:

Reporter Hannah Furfaro moves to this project after two years on our Education Lab team. With a master’s degree in science and health journalism from Columbia University, Furfaro wrote about neuroscience and psychiatry before joining The Times. Her work focused on psychiatric drugs, new treatments and rare mental health conditions; she published stories in Science, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, among other places. 

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Reporter Esmy Jimenez joins us from KUOW, where she has been covering immigration and other topics. Before joining the NPR affiliate in 2019, she worked at Northwest Public Broadcasting in Yakima, the Sightline Institute in Seattle and the Seattle Globalist.

Jimenez has been a fellow at Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting, the ProPublica & Ida B. Wells Data Institute, the Maynard Institute + Google News Lab, and National Public Radio’s Next Generation Early Career program.

Engagement editor Michelle Baruchman will focus on direct interaction with readers, both in person and online. Baruchman moves to the project after more than three years as engagement editor with our Traffic Lab team, where she fostered conversations with readers and community groups, hosted public events and wrote explanatory articles.

Before coming to The Times, Baruchman held engagement and reporting internships at The Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times.

In addition to the core team, The Mental Health Project will feature the work of our photo, video, graphics and data journalists.

As with our other community-funded newsroom teams — Education Lab, Traffic Lab and Project Homeless — this team is committed to hearing directly from you about your own experiences, questions and concerns. In fact, you can start now. Please share any thoughts you have about this topic to mentalhealth@seattletimes.com or leave a voicemail at 206-464-2090.

We’ve already heard from many of you, suggesting a wide range of topics: The shortage of therapists and inpatient treatment beds. What to do if an adult child has a manic breakdown. Why so many adult women seem to be getting diagnosed with ADHD. How fentanyl is affecting addiction rates and treatment. The intersection between mental illness and homelessness. What can be done about inequitable access to care. How to combat depression among seniors.

It feels like an endless list of stories to do. And that, we realize, is the point of The Mental Health Project: to focus our journalism on a vast, under-covered area that affects so many.