Join journalist, author, and the director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing Seth Mnookin as he chats with reporter Courtenay Harris Bond about the efficacy of medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders. Also in this episode: Kasha Patel talks with researchers using a novel method for monitoring rapidly-melting polar ice caps, one that could help scientists refine computer models of sea ice loss and improve their understanding of the glaciers; and Danny Hentz reports on the precarious future of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument, which is under threat of losing its protected status.
Below are the individual segments and a full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to the Undark podcast at iTunes or listen on Spotify.
Kasha Patel: Hey, Undark listeners. It’s your host Kasha Patel. I’m very excited about this episode because we’re going to places I have never been, and I suspect maybe neither have you. We’re going under a glacier. On top of a melting shelf of ice. And next to a falling hunk of glacier ice.
[Noise of vibrations from wind over ice shelf], [noise of bubbles popping under glacier], and [noise of calving event — a chunk of glacier breaks off and falls into water]
What you just quickly heard were audio clips that scientists are using to track changes in glaciers. Because of rising global temperatures, Antarctica and the Arctic are hotspots for research — no pun intended. NASA predicts by the year 2100, ice melt from the polar caps will play a large part in raising our sea level by at least 26 inches — that’s enough to cause major problems for coastal cities.
Now researchers are monitoring the health of these vulnerable polar regions in many ways. They can travel there to take measurements, but that can be inefficient and being around large icebergs that can fall at any moment can be dangerous. They can analyze satellite imagery, but since the relevant satellites only pass over occasionally, say once every 10 days, they might miss data for an important event. In other words, we kind of have a limited amount of continuous information of how fast these glaciers are shrinking, especially on a daily timescale. Fixing these data limitations can help scientists refine computer models of sea ice loss and improve researchers’ understanding of the glaciers. Then they can better answer questions like, “Are the glaciers melting as fast as predicted?” and maybe even, “Can we do anything to slow down the melting?”
Well, it turns out you can actually track changes like mass and shape in glaciers by listening to them. I was surprised by this and so was researcher Julien Chaput, a professor of geophysics at the University of Texas El Paso.
Julien Chaput: The study was actually a bit of an accident. We weren’t specifically looking for this at all. And our goal was to attempt to determine crust and mantel properties under the ocean, so under the ice shelf.
Kasha Patel: Chaput is interested in the Ross Ice Shelf, which is the largest ice shelf in Antarctica about the size of France. He was working on understanding large, destabilizing, earthquake-like vibrations under the shelf. He placed 34 seismometers to monitor any vibrations.
Julien Chaput: Instead, what we found just by listening were these strange frequency patterns that had this sort of dissonance…sort of melody to them.
[noise of vibrations from wind over ice shelf]
Kasha Patel: This noise, which sounds like a didgeridoo to me, occurs when wind whips over the peaks and dunes of the ice sheet. The wind sends vibrations down through compressed ice crystals in the snow bed, which Chaput’s seismographs pick up.
To be clear though, if you went and stood on the Ross Ice Shelf, this wouldn’t be the sound you’d hear. These noises are just barely too low-pitched for the human ear to pick up. Chaput alters the clips to bring them into a frequency we can hear. One way to do this is to speed up the recordings. We can do this when we record ourselves, and speed it up until we sound like a chipmunk and we all laugh with our friends because don’t we sound silly!
Kasha Patel: Chaput learned that those frequency patterns, those melodic tones, reacted to changes happening in the surrounding environment. Like a melting event. Some of Chaput’s instruments actually recorded a melting event on the Ross Ice Shelf in January of 2016. Let’s take a listen. Each second represents one day of seismic data.
It starts out at normal. Then once the melting starts the audio clip will start to slow down and become quieter until the melting is over. And here’s something interesting. Once the melting event ended, the tune of the glacier seems to have changed.
Julien Chaput: The fact we can understand what they’re doing physically on the scale of minutes just by listening to them sing like this is sort of an invaluable asset.
Kasha Patel: But now let’s take it one step further…what if you could quantify how much the glacier melted? You take the sounds and convert them into specific numbers like how many inches of the glacier is melting? Or how big of a slab of ice just fell into that water? That’s what researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego are working on. And to do this, they’re going underneath the glacier.
[Noise of bubbles popping under glacier]
Believe it or not, that sound you just heard was bubbles under a glacier. Thousands of bubbles. Maybe hundreds of thousands of bubbles. We don’t quite know. That’s what research oceanographer Grant Deane is trying to find out. He’s been in the field of underwater acoustics for about 35 years, focusing the last decade on ambient noise in Arctic regions like that audio clip you just heard from Svalbard, Norway.
Grant Deane: My first reaction when I first listened to the sounds was “There’s a problem! It can’t possibly be this noisy. It was incredibly noisy. I’ve listened to a lot of underwater sounds in the course of my career and I’ve never heard anything like this. And it was as noisy as an intense storm, but it was a sunny day with no wind or waves and I was absolutely stunned and I thought this is amazing.
Kasha Patel: Unlike Chaput’s eerie sound of a melting glacier that was sped up, this audio clip is not altered. These are noises that we would hear if we were underwater, right at that boundary where ice meets the ocean.
Grant Deane: Glacier ice is full of ancient air bubbles and those bubbles slowly make their way in the ice down to the ocean and then they meet the water and the ice melts and the gas is released explosively into the water. And that makes little popping noises. Our task is to take the sound of each of those bubbles and use it to count how many bubbles are being released into the water at any given moment. If we can count those bubbles and we know how many of them are in the ice, we can figure out how quickly the ice is melting.
Kasha Patel: But how do you go from sounds to numbers? How do you get real scientific insight?
Grant Deane: Well, that’s the magic.
Kasha Patel: To do that, Deane took cubes of pressurized ice, melted them in a lab, and listened to the sounds. He used that data to create a mathematical model to learn how things like bubble size and gas pressure affect the sound and therefore their count.
Grant Deane: We’ve been able to figure that out, how the sounds depend on those variables.
Kasha Patel: But figuring out the bubbles is actually only one piece of the equation that contributes to ice loss. Between those bubbles popping, there are literally blocks of ice falling into the ocean. This is called calving. If you’re listening to this podcast through headphones, you’ll be able to hear it better because it’s a low subtle rumble in the recording. But if you were standing right beside that falling block of ice, it would sound like a wrecking ball smashing through a house.
Deane works with Oskar Glowacki who also works in underwater acoustics at Scripps.
Oskar Glowacki: We are focused on the interaction between the falling blocks of ice with the ocean surface.
Kasha Patel: Glowacki is able to tell how big a piece of ice is and even how it fell based off of the noise. Here is what it sounds like when ice is dropping from above. [Noise of ice entering water with a splash] Here is what it sounds like when the ice is breaking off the glacier beneath the water and rising up to the ocean surface. [Rumbly noise of ice resurfacing]
This spring for a month and a half, Glowacki and his colleagues are heading back to Svalbard to record and retrieve more data to refine their techniques of measuring bubbles and calving. And some of the audio data taken over the past year is waiting for him on a memory card inside of an underwater microphone 30 meters deep. He’ll literally dive down and retrieve it.
Oskar Glowacki: We cannot just use some fancy equipment that can send data because there are icebergs everywhere. So, everything that is close to the ocean’s surface can be literally smashed by the iceberg or by the ice. So everything needs to be close to the bottom. Maybe not so deeply, because we are talking about 20 to 30 meters that we can reach easily by diving there.
Kasha Patel: Wow does that make you nervous that your data’s just floating out there? That part seems more daunting to me than the analysis part is, retrieving the data.
Oskar Glowacki: You can dive down and discover your buoy is in pieces. Or even don’t find it.
Kasha Patel: Oh man, well good luck to you this spring!
Oskar Glowacki: Yeah, thanks, I hope it will be fine.
Kasha Patel: Next, we’re going to keep with the water theme. We’re going to dive deep into New England’s Marine Serengeti. Taking us there is reporter Danny Hentz. Let’s take a listen.
Daniel Hentz: One hundred and fifty miles southeast of Cape Cod there’s this area of ocean roughly the size of Connecticut. Three canyons and four underwater mountains hide thousands of feet below the surface. And few land-dwellers know that this pocket of the Atlantic is actually a superhighway for animal traffic.
Everything from the huge sperm whale to fleets of common dolphins and sharks to the vibrant Atlantic puffin all gather to feast in one pocket of ocean, where rich nutrients drive in schools of fish and plankton, that then beget larger predatory fish, and filter feeders.
[Sound of humpback whales]
Your ears don’t deceive you, those are the sounds of humpback whales, one of the many types of large marine mammals roaming through this same area, recordings captured by high frequency acoustic technologies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 2016, President Obama designated this area a national marine monument under the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to set aside wilderness areas in the name of our national heritage. Scientists have lovingly referred to it by the names: “Serengeti of the Sea,” and the unsung treasure of New England’s waters. It’s called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument and today, it’s under threat of losing its protected status.
There was immediate pushback from local fishing advocates who believed prior regulations were enough to protect the area. And then, former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke strongly recommended the monument’s designation be removed to make way for commercial fishing, which some experts warn would allow resource extraction — including drilling for natural gas buried within each of the four seamounts. “The monument appeared as one of 78 environmental regulation rollbacks pushed for by President Trump. To date, 47 rollbacks have been completed.
As the United States’ first North Atlantic monument, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is a battleground for overlapping and conflicting views on what it means to protect and manage our ocean’s resources.
For scientists like Peter J. Auster the designation protects a cornucopia of underwater life — one of the only refuges in the North Atlantic that is still seeing robust levels of biodiversity. Peter is an emeritus professor of marine studies at the University of Connecticut. He’s also a senior research scientist at Mystic Aquarium.
Peter Auster: I have been diving in the area that is now the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument since 1984.
Daniel Hentz: Using a mix of crewed and uncrewed submersibles, he and his colleagues explored the monument’s three canyons — Oceanographer, Gilbert and Lydonia, which cut into the edge of our continental shelf, an area called the Georges Bank.
The sea floor slopes down more than 5,000 meters into the deep sea. But then, out of the gloom, four extinct volcanoes rise from the void. These are called Seamounts.
Peter Auster: Bear, Physalia, Retriever, and Mytilus — those are the names of the seamounts.
I often describe these as like climbing mountains from the top down — the mountain doesn’t even start until 3,300 feet, 1,100 meters deep.
Along the edges of these basaltic seamounts there are these places for organisms to attach. These places harbor deep sea corals that jut out from the sides of the mountains or the edge of the canyons, and they intercept food-laden currents.
Daniel Hentz: It is this combination of location and habitat diversity that has helped to support some of the most divergent aquatic species in the Atlantic. And you don’t need to be a diver to notice. In a recent study, researchers from the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium spotted more than 600 individuals (many whales and dolphins) in less than four hours while flying over the monument.
Because the monument sits at the intersection of so many currents and upwellings, there’s a huge influx of nutrients and phytoplankton. That bounty ripples up the food web and draws all kinds of marine life, including rare species like the Cuvier’s Beaked Whale.
As you descend to 500 feet and below, some of the more sessile creatures begin to appear, including 58 species of the world’s rarest cold water corals, some of which are up to 4,000 years old. And like anywhere in the world, these corals play a role in structuring the habitat of numerous deep water species.
Peter Auster: Fishing gear dragged over the sea floor, whether it’s fixed gear or mobile gear, when they hit corals or very fragile sponges, it knocks them over or tears them apart. They’re highly sensitive to disturbance, and if disturbed, if these animals are killed, we’re talking hundreds, if not over a thousand years to fully recover — and if they will recover.
Daniel Hentz: Despite its size, the monument makes up only 1.5 percent of the U.S.’s exclusive economic fishing zones in the Atlantic — these are the boundaries offshore reserved for our national fishing fleet. So, who exactly is fishing in this region? Well, there are only a few small commercial red crab and lobstering vessels that use the area. According to the 2016 mandate, these boats have more than seven years to transition out of the monument’s boundaries.
On March 7, 2017, the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association (MLA) filed a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of several commercial industries. They objected to President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act, claiming it only applied to the land and unfairly usurped their ability to fish. In October 2018, the case was struck down by District Court Judge James E. Boasberg, who declared the Antiquities Act had the precedent necessary to reserve aquatic wilderness as well.
Others like Bonnie Brady, who heads the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, express a lingering fear: What if this isn’t the last marine monument to prohibit New England fishers?
The MLA did not respond for comment. But Janice Plante, the public affairs officer for the New England Fishery Management Council, was able to explain where some of the tensions may have arisen during this case, especially when it comes to resource management.
Janice Plante: We already had restrictions within the monument area that dealt with several of our fishery management plans. And the other thing is we were already in the process of developing this massive coral amendment that covered an area far greater than the current monument. I mean, this is what we do.
Daniel Hentz: The council itself comprises experts at every echelon of the fishing industry: some are marine scientists, while others are commercial fishermen — Plante herself was a journalist for a marine trade magazine — but all have a stake in the future of the region. She says it’s not the monument’s existence that unnerved council members, but how it excludes them from the planning process.
Janice Plante: We go through this arduous, rigorous process that’s all based on the best scientific information available and includes all stakeholders in the process.
Daniel Hentz: The council derives its power from another law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This was created in the 70s to curb overfishing by giving authority to local and regional regulators. When the Seamounts became a national monument, that regulatory power passed to the Department of Interior and the Department of Commerce.
Janice Plante: I think the initial concern was that this authority to manage the fisheries within our jurisdiction was being taken away from us — that took everyone a little bit by surprise.
Peter Auster: You know, admittedly it’s tough to be a fisherman in New England.
Daniel Hentz: That’s Peter Auster again, the scientist from earlier in the story.
Peter Auster: We keep falling back into a hole of overfishing and overfished species, which then produced draconian regulations that everyone needs to abide by and so it’s hard to keep a business.
Daniel Hentz: But he also says the type of fishing practiced in the Seamounts was just too dangerous for the ecosystem there, and that drilling for oil would be even worse. So you have these two conflicting laws that aim towards a similar goal: the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which created regulatory powers like the Fishery Council to manage these waters, and the Antiquities Act, which presidents can use to set aside large areas of wilderness for immediate protection.
Both aim to protect, but it’s a slow process to navigate the bureaucracy of local regulatory agencies to address unsustainable fishing and resource practices. And while the councils create management plans, they already rely on federal agencies like NOAA to vet and enforce them. The Antiquities Act does overrule local management plans, but offers swift and expansive protection. But without local expertise, the designation could cause deeper schisms within the fishing community and harm their respect for regulations.
So what happens if Trump does roll back this area’s designation as a national monument? It could be that local fisheries protect it effectively from overfishing and drilling. But it also risks endangering a precious part of the ocean for marine life and humans alike.
One thing is certain: While a lot of these creatures and their underwater cathedrals, are out of sight and out of reach, it’s worth saying that there’s something beautiful beneath the murkiness of our New England waters.
Peter Auster: Even if I never go back out there again, having this place protected is a gift to the American people.
Kasha Patel: Next up, we have Seth Mnookin talking to a recent Undark contributor who wrote a piece on substance abuse disorders. Seth is a journalist, author, and director of MIT’s Graduate program in science writing. Take it away, Seth.
Seth Mnookin: It is my absolute pleasure to welcome to the Undark Podcast this month, Courtenay Harris Bond. She is a freelance reporter and writer who has written for any number of publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, NewsWorks, the Broad Street Review.
She’s joining this month to talk about her recent piece in Undark on medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders. A piece that was written as part of her Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Courtenay, welcome to the podcast.
Courtenay Harris Bond: Thanks so much for having me.
Seth Mnookin: So, I wanted to start just by asking you for, for listeners who might not be familiar with the term, what exactly is medically-assisted treatment?
Courtenay Harris Bond: So, medically-assisted treatment, also known as medication-assisted therapy, is a series of medications that people addicted to opioids can use under a doctor’s supervision to help them stabilize. They don’t get high off of them, if they use them correctly as prescribed. It can help cut their cravings and reduce their chance of overdose, and then enable them to start, for instance, therapy and the process of recovery.
Seth Mnookin: So, I guess the best-known medication-assisted treatment, the one that probably people might have heard of, is methadone. Is that correct?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yes. Methadone was synthesized by German scientists during World War II, as a substitute for morphine. So it’s been around for a really long time, and when veterans were coming back from Vietnam, a lot of them were addicted to heroin, and methadone was … methadone clinics sprung up all over the country to help them.
Seth Mnookin: So, first of all, how would someone take methadone? And second, what would be the difference between taking methadone and taking heroin?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Okay, so, yeah, methadone you have to report to a clinic daily, usually depending on the jurisdiction and the status of your recovery, like where you are in your recovery. A person reports to the clinic in the morning first thing, gets their dose of methadone, and sometimes participates in groups at the clinic, then goes to work or about their daily lives.
Methadone can be abused for sure, and it can be sold on the streets, but it’s pretty hard to get it out of clinics usually. Heroin is a street drug, so it’s, you know, bought and sold on the streets, and people use it to get high. Whereas, usually people are using methadone to try to stabilize their lives.
Seth Mnookin: I have a substance use disorder with heroin, no longer using, but I know from personal experience with methadone that it doesn’t give you the same type of high that heroin does. In fact, when you’re using it in a clinic, essentially one of the effects it has, because of the size of the molecules, is it blocks the effects of heroin. So if you are using methadone, it’s not only that you don’t need to then score heroin to satisfy your cravings, but actually using heroin, for the most part, doesn’t have the effect of getting you more high.
Courtenay Harris Bond: That’s a really important point, I’m glad you brought that up. It also helps people stave off, you know, dope sickness, so that they’re not getting ill on a daily basis, because they’re going through withdrawal.
Seth Mnookin: For methadone, I think certainly my sense of methadone clinics, is that they often times have a stigma attached to them, in addition to, as you said, in many jurisdictions, it being something that where you need to literally report first thing in the morning, every day. Has that been a barrier to people seeking out that type of medication-assisted treatment?
Courtenay Harris Bond: I think it really has. I think that for some people methadone is great, because their lives are so unstable and it provides a structure that they don’t have in their lives otherwise. So reporting … Having to report to a clinic every morning is actually a very positive thing. Alternatively, there are people who, you know, have young children, and need to get to work early in the morning, and it becomes a huge barrier to them, to have to go daily.
Seth Mnookin: You talk a lot in this piece about different types of medication-assisted treatment that have been really developed and put into use more recently. Can you talk a little bit about those?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Sure. So, Suboxone I think is the main one that I focused on in this piece. It combines buprenorphine that activates some opiate receptors, and naloxone that blocks sort of the effects of heroin, or the euphoria that people experience on heroin. So it helps cut cravings, and ideally prevent, you know, the chance of overdose.
Seth Mnookin: Yeah, and how long has that been used? And that combination been used for treatment?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yeah, so Suboxone was developed by a British pharmaceutical company, I think it came out in Europe in 2006, and in the states in 2010. So it’s a newer drug, and certainly during the opioid crisis it’s become, you know, sort of the go-to medication for people looking for maintenance. There is also Vivitrol, which usually comes as a once a month shot. For whatever reason, it’s not as popular, and not used as often. Sometimes with the incarceration population, incarcerated populations, it’s used upon release to try to help the person who has been experiencing incarceration, you know, prevent relapse.
So, Vivitrol, I think one thing I’ve heard anecdotally about it, is that it’s thick and quite painful to get the shot.
Seth Mnookin: One of the things I found really fascinating about your piece, is that there now is this growing body of evidence that medication-assisted treatment, often times in conjunction with some behavioral therapy, is one of the more effective, if not the most effective tool we have in combating substance use disorders. At the same time, it seems that from your reporting, it’s not being universally embraced. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Oh sure. So, I think the treatment model in this country has been dominated for many decades by the 12-step model, and that usually emphasizes abstinence from all drugs and alcohol, understandably. Some 12-step programs, or groups I should say, look at medication-assisted treatment as trading one drug for another, or methadone as liquid handcuffs, is a common sort of phrase that they use. So there’s a lot of stigma against it, in a lot of 12-step programs, but I do think that the tide is shifting on that, and I think that there are more and more 12-step groups that are welcoming people who are on, you know, methadone, Suboxone, vivitrol. I think that’s a very positive development, and I think we’re gonna see more of that in the future.
Seth Mnookin: Yeah, and just to unpack that a little bit, one of the things that I think is so fascinating about substance use disorder treatment is, you know, exactly that point that you raised, that the treatment model in health care settings in this country has been so intimately connected with the 12-step model. It’s a program obviously that has proven to be very helpful for a lot of people, because of the fact that 12-step programs are all self-governing, it is a system for which it can be hard to get data, in terms of recovery rates. There is not a lot of good information about how effective 12-step programs are, and yet it still has been used even in health care settings as the primary model.
Courtenay Harris Bond: I think that you’re exactly right, a huge issue has been there’s no data that’s easily accessible about the success rates of 12-step programs. One of the most interesting things for me in reporting this piece was speaking to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, because they have traditionally been a 12-step program. In recent years, they have had to really revamp and revise how they look at their model and protocols, and they’ve embraced medication-assisted treatment as an option for clients seeking help at their locations.
Seth Mnookin: And Hazelden Betty Ford, that’s a series of inpatient clinics to treat substance use disorders. Is that right?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s based in Minnesota, but there are locations throughout the country.
Seth Mnookin: Did they talk at all about what caused that change for them to start to embrace medication-assisted treatment more, as a model?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yeah, well, they did say that it was a big battle internally, that it was a huge hurdle to overcome. There were, you know, a lot of staff that were very resistant to embracing MAT, or medication-assisted treatment. But I think with the proportions of people dying from overdose deaths, from opioid use disorder, they just could no longer ignore the evidence supporting … this was something they needed to really offer their clients.
Seth Mnookin: The fact that even within these health care settings, you have that resistance. To me, it really spoke to … Well, we referenced the stigmatization, because you would never have a situation where say someone was prescribed an anti-depressant, and health care workers saying, “Well, they’re not really getting treated if they’re taking an anti-depressant. Unless they can do this entirely through behavioral therapy, then that treatment or that recovery is not real.”
Yet that still does seem to be an attitude sometimes, when as soon as you put drugs in the equation, drugs or alcohol into the equation, despite the fact that for decades we’ve known that substance use disorders, alcohol use disorders, are a medical issue. The same as depression, the same as any type of medical issue.
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yeah, that’s correct. I think that … One thing I would say is that the tide is really shifted over the past couple of decades, probably since Prozac came out toward people using anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications. I think there used to be a lot more prejudicial attitudes against people using those drugs as well, so maybe the silver lining here is that the tide will shift, similarly with medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, and that they’ll be less and less stigma against it as time goes on.
Seth Mnookin: Now, you did a huge amount of reporting for this, and spoke with a lot of people who are struggling with these issues, people who have tried different types of medication-assisted treatment. Can you tell me a little bit about the reporting process? And also what initially got you interested in this story?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yeah, so I’ll start with your latter question. I personally have struggled a lot of anxiety and depression throughout my life, and I think when you go through so much suffering yourself, it kind of opens up your capacity for empathy, and your interest in sort of examining other forms of suffering. At least for me it did, so when I got the opportunity to apply for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, Kensington, Philadelphia is a hotbed of opioid use disorder and drug use, and always has been for decades. It’s known as the Badlands, and the city was making a big push to clear El Campamento, which was along the Conrail tracks. It was a big drug-use haven, and there was a huge amount of controversy about it, this was two summers ago.
I had done some reporting about that, and was very drawn in by it. So, when I applied for the fellowship, I decided to shape my proposal around, you know, examining medication-assisted treatment as a possible solution to … or as a possible cure or, you know, way to help people get onto the path toward recovery.
Seth Mnookin: So for people who might not be familiar with it, can you explain what the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism fellowships are? What do they allow you to do? What are they designed for?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Oh yeah, that’s a wonderful question. It’s a very special program, the goal is to help reporters cover behavioral health and reduce stigma around mental illness. They give you a $10,000 stipend, and a year … for a year’s worth of work. It’s just a wonderful opportunity. If you’re interested in behavioral health reporting, I would encourage anyone to apply for this.
Seth Mnookin: You mentioned your own issues with anxiety and depression, that’s something that you’ve written about as well. What is that experience like, about opening yourself up and writing about your own vulnerability? About making yourself the subject of your own reporting.
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yeah, it’s been fascinating. I’ve had some conflicting feelings about it, not so much about sharing personal information, but about, as a journalist, making myself the subject of the story. But I think that I’ve gotten to a point in my middle age where I feel no shame about anything anymore, and I think there’s so little written about mental illness in the general, you know, media, that it’s very important to, in any way we can, sort of raise the discussion about this.
So, I made the conscious decision in the past two years to start writing about my own struggles with anxiety and depression.
Seth Mnookin: This project, it sounds like the … it was the culmination of your Carter fellowship. I noticed that along with your very beautiful writing, there were a series of very striking black and white photographs by a photographer named Jeffrey Stockbridge. Was this something that the two of you set out to work on together? Or how did that partnership come about?
Courtenay Harris Bond: So, Jeffrey Stockbridge spent probably seven, eight years on Kensington Avenue photographing portraits of people, and recording their stories, and transcribing them. He has a great blog called Kensington Blues. I contacted him during the summer, two summers ago when the city was clearing El Campamento and said, “Would you like to collaborate on a story or a series of stories?” And he said, “Absolutely,” and that began our collaboration.
Then when I applied for the fellowship, I asked him if I shared some of my stipend with him, if he would be willing to, sort of accompany me on my reporting to take photographs. Then we ended up sort of making, in addition to just Jeffrey taking photographs and me reporting and writing, we ended up co-producing a series of documentary shorts about the opioid crisis in Philadelphia.
Seth Mnookin: Where can listeners find those?
Courtenay Harris Bond: So, we’ve just uploaded them to YouTube. The name of the series is called “Embedded in the Badlands.” They’re pretty compelling, I would just give a trigger warning. In some of them, there is some pretty explicit drug use, and intravenous heroin use and fentanyl use, so watchers should beware, and it’s certainly not appropriate for children.
Seth Mnookin: Do you know what project you’re working on next?
Courtenay Harris Bond: Yes, I’ve actually been working on another very long-form project for the past year plus, in an incarceration setting with an individual who has been in and out of prison and jail for his entire adult life. I just sort of fell into meeting him when I was reporting on some medication-assisted treatment in one of the city’s jails, and he … You know, I gave him my number, we talk almost every day. I’ve met with him on a number of occasions, he’s been in and out of jail a couple of times since I’ve known him. He’s now in a treatment setting for his substance use disorder and mental illness.
So my goal is to write a book proposal about this, and part of the story is about my sort of relationship with him, and my personal struggles as a journalist with boundaries.
Seth Mnookin: That sounds fascinating, I wish you all the luck. I can’t wait to read that, and anything else that you’re working on. Again, this was a really beautifully written piece, a really important piece. Courtenay Harris Bond, thank you so much for joining us this month on the Undark Podcast, and I hope we get a chance to talk to you again.
Courtenay Harris Bond: Oh, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
Kasha Patel: That’s all Undark listeners! We’re produced by Lydia Chain. Music is by the Undark team. Music in Daniel Hentz’s piece is from Podington Bear. Special thanks to Grant Deane, Oskar Glowaski, and Julien Chaput for providing us with the sound clips of glaciers and bubbles. I’m your host, Kasha Patel. Talk to you next month.