Acclaimed author and 1979 College graduate Stephen Fried will teach a new nonfiction English course on writing about mental health and addiction next semester. Fried's class will be one of the first undergraduate courses of its kind on mental health writing in the country.
Fried is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was editor-in-chief of Philadelphia magazine. He has worked as a lecturer at Penn through The Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing since 2009 and is a member of the advisory committee for the University's annual Nora Magid prize.
Students taking the spring class, titled “Advanced Nonfiction Writing: Writing about Mental Health and Addiction,” will read and discuss pieces about behavioral health.
“There's a lot of writing about mental illness that is heartfelt and powerful but it isn't always evidence-based,” Fried said. “Our goal here is to teach people things they don't know about illnesses and to also look at structural issues in these kinds of writings.”
Throughout the semester, students will hear from expert guest lecturers and will work on their own piece of nonfiction writing such as a memoir, investigative article, narrative long-form story, or medical science piece.
After a career of covering stories about mental health, Fried said he understands the importance of making this class available, adding that sources and authors themselves can have limited knowledge of sensitive subjects.
“In order to be more informed, [writers] have to go a little further,” Fried said, adding that such uninformed writing can contribute to a lack of people seeking and staying in treatment for mental health illnesses.
2015 College graduate Sarah Smith, who covered mental health as a Daily Pennsylvanian reporter, said she wishes she could have taken a class like Fried’s before covering student suicides in 2014.
“The sad truth is our own perception of mental health as a society has changed so much in the last four years, [but] this isn't something people think about teaching journalism school students,” Smith said.
Mental health groups on campus see the class as a step towards de-stigmatizing the conversation around mental health and addiction.
"I think we hear so much about mental health in the media but it's really hard to talk about and portray it in a sensitive, informed manner,” said Active Minds Co-President and College senior Megha Nagaswami. "I think that a class like this would be really beneficial for anyone who's interested in how to most accurately portray mental health.”
Matthew Lee, graduate liaison for Penn Wellness and a fourth-year graduate Nursing student, said while he supports the idea behind the class, he is unsure of the impact it will have on the wider mental health conversation.
"I like that the University is taking this step toward formalizing an improvement to health communication, but until it's taken care of in a broader way, I don't think it's going to have the huge impact you would want," Lee said.
Fried said he believes training students can help writers better understand mental health.
"I understand people's concern that you can write about [mental health and addiction] wrong,” Fried said. “But I also think the solution to that is to teach people how to write about these things better, more responsibly, in a more informed way.”