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Spotlight: 2016

Investigating how the Massachusetts mental-health system was failing those who needed it most

In a state that prided itself on its health care, why did so many lives of people with severe mental illness end in tragedy?

In 2009, Lee F. Chiero was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2007 killing of his mother.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Spotlight Team: Scott Allen (editor), Maria Cramer, Scott Helman, Michael Rezendes, Jenna Russell, Todd Wallack, Eric Bosco, and Anica Butler

Spotlight editor Scott Allen looked down through a window at the Globe’s Dorchester office and saw protesters. There were dozens, maybe more than a hundred. And they were mad, not at corruption or some other outrage revealed by the Spotlight Team, but at Allen and the reporters themselves. “I had never seen anything like it,” he says.

A few weeks earlier, on June 26, 2016, the Spotlight Team had published the first in a series of reports about how the mental health care system in Massachusetts was failing those who needed it most. The article had been bracing and, critics said, inflammatory. It ran under the project’s headline, “The Desperate and the Dead,” and led with the excruciating account of Lee F. Chiero, a man suffering from mental illness who had killed his mother.

The article, and the project itself, was born of the team seeing a troubling trend. In the 2010s, Massachusetts experienced a spate of killings in which mental health seemed to be a factor. Sometimes the killer suffered from severe mental illness. In other cases, the victim, often killed by police officers, was in a psychiatric crisis. Spotlight reporter Michael Rezendes compiled a database of examples. Then the team embarked on a mission to answer one of the most basic of journalistic questions: Why?


Why, in a state that prided itself on its world-class health care, were so many cases of severe mental illness ending in tragedy?

What the team found, during more than a year of reporting, was that Massachusetts’ mental health care system had more or less vanished. Decades earlier, the state had been dotted with in-patient psychiatric hospitals. But these asylums had often been brutal, inhumane places, and the state had shut them down. The result: people desperately in need of help with nowhere to turn.


The seven-part series documented the consequences of this history of neglect: relatives forced to work as untrained caregivers, police officers stepping in where social workers were needed, prisons filling the void left by the shuttered hospitals. The series also explored the kinds of modern, evidence-based mental health programs that Massachusetts could have, but had thus far failed to implement.

The team intended for the series to serve as a call to action, a way to jolt distracted policy makers to focus on a problem they had ignored for too long. But that’s not how some mental health advocates saw it. “The headline is incredibly dramatic and fear-driven,” says Sera Davidow, who helped organize the protest at the Globe. Fear, Davidow says, can lead policy makers to force mandatory treatment on people with severe mental illnesses. Fear of mental illness can also cause police officers and ordinary citizens to jump to violence, Davidow says: “These attitudes kill us.”

Some members of the Spotlight Team took the protest hard. “It was difficult to have people who are respected saying you’re doing damage,” says Spotlight reporter Jenna Russell.

But there were forceful voices supporting the team’s coverage, as well. Some families rebuked activists who opposed mandatory outpatient treatment programs. One man, whose step-daughter relied on a New York state program to stay on her medication and off the street, said of the activists, “I feel those people are trying to kill her.”


Allen, on the day of the protest, went outside to speak with the activists. He heard them out, but also stood behind what the team had found in their reporting, which was later named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “If you want to talk about hard things,” Allen says, “you have to say the hard things.”

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