Reporter takes on mental health and caregiving in new documentary

Photo courtesy of Richard Lui

Journalist Richard Lui is best known as the weekend news anchor on MSNBC. But eight years ago, he also became a family caregiver — flying between New York City and his parents’ home in San Francisco to help care for his father, who had Alzheimer’s disease. 

It got him thinking about mental health — his dad’s, his own, and that of other families who struggle with serious illness or disability. His journey led to  “Unconditional,” a documentary that profiles three families — including his own — as they help their loved ones through their crises and discover their own inner strength. 

In addition to his family, the film profiles the Bushatz family in Palmer, Ala. Luke is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who struggles with severe PTSD. His wife Amy and their two young sons help him through. 

We also get to know Kate Hendricks Thomas, army veteran, mental health expert, and terminal breast cancer patient who is preparing her husband Shane and 5-year-old son for a future without her.

The film has been shown at the White House and to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. I happened to catch its debut on MSNBC over Memorial Day weekend. I found it incredibly moving. 

I recently spoke with Lui by phone about the film, how to better report on mental health and how his approach to certain kinds of stories has changed. 

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What prompted you to make the film?

I started taking care of my dad eight years ago, and I was flying back and forth. A friend who worked at AARP reached out about a series they were doing, “Caregiving: The Circle of Love,” showing caregiving in communities of color. I asked, what’s caregiving?  After she explained more, I said OK, and they started filming me. The whole time I wasn’t identifying myself as even doing that. It wasn’t even a noun. 

When I looked at [the subject of caregiving], the numbers were mind-blowing — more than half a trillion dollars of untapped value every year, the over 53 million people that are doing it.  My first film, “Sky Blossom,” focused on youth in this space, which then led to “Unconditional.” We ended up with a focus on mental health and the caregiving role and how it evolved in families, and what you saw in the film was the evolution of their roles. 

How did you find the other participants? How long did it take?

We worked with a bunch of NGOs. We started with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, AARP, and then that led us to other organizations where they had relationships. We wanted to focus on a military caregiver.  I reached out to journalists who cover the space, including to Amy [Bushatz]. I commented on her knack for distilling information and being honest, and she said, it’s because she was a caregiver, too. So I interviewed her. 

With [the Thomases], we reached out to a women’s veteran group that was focusing on people like Kate, living through tough times, and pointed to “Sky Blossom” as a way to reassure them we were serious. That opened the door because it shows we’ve been working with military families for a long time, and we’ve committed to it and had the support of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. I finally emailed Kate and asked her to think about it. I said, I know you have limited time. And I realize that this would require me taking days from your time with family. And she thought about it; talked to Shane. And the next day she said yes. She gave her time without reserve. We went to film them four times, and it’s a three-day shoot each time we’re there. We’re really in their face. And they came on fully. She told me “I’m gonna do this. Because I want Matthew to remember me for what I do.”

As journalists, we generally don’t put ourselves into our stories. What was it like being part of this story, and why did you make that decision as opposed to finding another family? 

I realized that the challenge is actually to get interest for this topic. I saw those other films [“Super Size Me” and “Embracing Ezra”] as sort of amazing examples of sometimes doing what you don’t like to, but it works. With the “Unconditional” project, it really seemed to work with the idea of going deeper and showing the complexities of relationships, even though my family’s story on paper is very different from the other two. My goal was to absolutely embrace the differences that we all have as people and as families for the purpose of showing our similarities.

Was your dad able to give permission, or did you have to talk to your mother about it? How did that work?

It was the entire family. I told him we were doing this as we’re filming the beginning. As you saw when we were walking through the kitchen in the house, he had already given approval. For us, getting the permission from my dad was telling him, we’re going to do this, was that okay? [He said] yes, but I knew at that time that he could sit there for hours. He would just say yes because I’m his son.

What have you learned personally, not only from the whole dementia journey with your dad, but in talking to people that are caring for others with mental and physical health challenges? Has anything changed in your mind — any preconceptions or stereotypes?

Everything has changed, and everything continues to change in a good way. I would have never thought that I’d be uttering the words “mental health” and “myself” openly as much as I have. And also, my own perception of what it can be has changed. I was doing a series of mental health seminars with the World Yoga Alliance, and the final questioner of the session happened to be a 13-year-old. And she says, “We have these mental health days at school. Why is it always about why it’s wrong? What about how it can be strong?” And I said to myself, “Holy, damn it — she just dropped the mic.” I have quoted her over and over again because that was the absolute truth. And talk about learning something new! Every time I bring up the topic, I’m really grateful for it.

What should journalists know and be aware of when they’re connecting with families and caregivers? Especially when they’re doing these deep dives.

It’s something I learned over the years of reporting on human trafficking when I started at CNN in 2007. The first story aired, and I realized I could have done better to protect what she gave me. I tell the story still because it’s obviously a mistake … When we’re covering mental health, we can do better about the way we are treating those who are giving us their story. And what I said repeatedly, and still do, is you’re gonna give me something I know that’s so valuable, so special. And I will guard it until I’m done with the story … I’m not going to give it away to somebody else. I’m going to be there for every single frame. I was in that two-year edit for “Unconditional” — two years, which for us broadcast folks, as you know, we have the attention span of a gnat — I watched it that many times and cared about it that many times. 

In covering mental health, we can say to our interviewee and then actually do it, that we will guard this special story because right now, we need to do better about the way we tell the stories till the very end of that story. The second thing is, let’s go into this knowing that it is not a mental illness. Let’s go into this knowing that is not 100% negative because it isn’t. It can be a strength and we can start to right-size the connotations that surround this topic.

When we report on family caregivers, we sometimes frame it as a negative, as a burden. And you didn’t. Where was the epiphany?

I’m so glad you caught that. The epiphany was caring for my dad. I laughed more, I cried more. I cry more now. And I laugh more now. And I saw that part of the laughter and the joy that came from caring for my dad, some of it was forced for sure because we wanted to look past the negative. Most of it was real. Most of it was genuine, new ways of living. Once I experienced that, I had to talk about it again with the producers and the editor. Because that was my therapy, part of it. 

This is a film that shows joy despite difficulty because that’s what I’m experiencing. I know others are. That was something we really focused on in everything we did from the very beginning. Joy despite difficulty. We need to allow ourselves to see that and talk about it that way. 

We look at all these amazing people and how they care for other people and the way they’re doing it. It’s just so encouraging. And that led to a late process decision. [The film] was originally called “Hidden Wounds.” And late in the game, we switched to “Unconditional” because [the title] opened up the conversation better. 

What’s the best way for journalists to start getting up to speed on these issues, especially those who may not actually have experienced caregiving of a parent or spouse?

We need to get to some sort of primary experience or engagement in it. Younger journalists will be more open in ways that I’m not, as an older journalist. It’s been ingrained in my brain that mental health equals negative, equals mental illness. They haven’t got the years and years of hearing that. They’re much more open, I believe, to understand the full scope, like that 13-year-old. 

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of first-person experiences, and if we’re really going to focus on the topic the way ACHJ focuses on it, then they really have to get out in the field and go to care homes. Just spend time there, volunteer if this is really the space you want to get into. That’s the way we learn our beats, right? We actually get into it and start to learn it. That’s the way to do it. …

Reach out and watch things like “Unconditional” that are out there. Like the series “Circle of Love” and anything else that brings you to the places you need to access to cover the story properly. It’s unlike most beats in that it requires so many parts of who we are as humans to understand. If you want to become a good journalist in this space, we need to access so many different parts of our senses, whether it’s going into a care home or a place that has a robust program for caregivers or mental health in general. 

I have completely evolved in my way of approaching those stories now. And finally, speak with organizations that are approaching mental health in its full spectrum of what it means, which is not only as a difficulty, but also as a strength as something we can build. And that’s where we can get a balanced view of what mental health is. 

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