Update: a fellowship and the future of Sanity
A chance to strengthen the foundations of independent mental health journalism rooted in the global south.
Dear Friend of Sanity,
Greetings from peak-summer New Delhi. I hope you are well, wherever in the world you are. I am writing to you today with some news that I wanted to first share with you before telling the rest of the world.
I have been awarded the Journalist Fellowship by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based in the University of Oxford. Starting October, I will be spending six months in Oxford, working on a research project to bolster the mission that brought you and me together – strengthening the foundations of independent mental health journalism.
Beyond the pride of knowing that the little independent platform you chose to support is going places, you can expect business mostly as usual. I have already started working on an exciting plan to keep Sanity running smoothly and will share details with you in the next few weeks. (Hint: It will involve a bit of help from you – I promise that you will like the ask 😇)
The Reuters Institute Journalist Fellowship is a dream opportunity for mid-career journalists. For me personally, it is an almost unthinkable honour. Just 16 months ago, I'd lost a job I loved, for which I'd left behind a successful career in business journalism. I had no clue what to do to stitch together some kind of livelihood. The same week, my father landed up in the ICU in my hometown. I launched Sanity as a Substack newsletter sitting at the foot of his hospital bed.
I remember feeling terrified. Independent, ad-free, 100% reader-funded mental health journalism was a wild idea in my country – in our entire region – where mental health remains in the shadows and paying for this kind of journalism was unheard of. Until this point, I was allergic to ‘entrepreneurship’. A pandemic seemed like the worst time for such a wild bet.
But then, a miracle happened. You showed up. And you didn't leave.
Thanks to you, Sanity broke into Substack's top paid health-related newsletters within 100 days of launch — the only non-western title on this list.
Because you helped me prove that our world needs Sanity, I made it to the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at the Newmark Journalism School, City University of New York in March 2021, with a full scholarship from Substack. The lessons I learnt there led to Sanity moving to its own independent website.
It was your validation for my story that gave me the courage last November to co-author a paper on suicide prevention in the Lancet Psychiatry, the world’s most powerful mental health journal.
Earlier this year, when Splice Media's Alan Soon and Rishad Patel – two dear friends of Sanity – invited me to travel to Perugia as a speaker at the International Journalism Festival, it was all of you, spread across 40+ countries in six continents, that I was representing.
This very kind recognition from the good people at the Reuters Institute is further proof that being an unabashed fan of your readers pays. Thank you, fellow Sanity seekers, for everything.
Why did I apply to this fellowship?
I didn't have any elaborate long-term plan when I started Sanity. I wasn't ready either to think too far ahead. But for some time now, I have felt it's time to start piecing together where we go next.
While building Sanity with all of you has been a fantastic ride so far, the hardest part comes now. We have to make Sanity financially sustainable while staying true to its core values. At the moment, we are still far from this goal. (PS: The stipend I will get as part of the fellowship will be enough to cover travel and living costs.)
As a solo creator building something never attempted before, I do not have any playbook to go by, or colleagues to draw energy from. I have been in constant, exhausting operation mode for the past 12 months, managing everything from writing and design to social media and following up with subscribers for failed payments, while also dealing with repeated, at times severe mental health crises of my own that regular readers are familiar with.
Joining this fellowship is me admitting that I am ready to accept help. I need time and space to take a step back from survival mode, breathe, and get clarity in my thinking. I need the company and wisdom of fellow journalists and creators pursuing daunting ideas to imagine what is truly possible. I need to access vital resources that are currently beyond my reach, such as the pioneering MindKind project and the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford, which have deep roots in Asia and Africa.
I was also drawn to this particular fellowship because it has a long history of enabling unique, pathbreaking, and truly global work. Before applying, I spent hours reading papers by past fellows, so many of whom have made outstanding contributions to public-spirited, community-driven media. I too want to make a similar contribution.
What will I be doing in these six months?
The goal of my project will be to tease out answers to a few fundamental questions:
- To begin with, what makes independent mental health journalism worth paying for?
- How do we define, measure, and consistently deliver a strong value proposition?
- How do we listen better to our community’s needs?
- What kind of editorial and community engagement practices best serve those needs?
- How do we involve readers as collaborators? And what kind of revenue models can support work like this?
The project will culminate in a detailed report. I am also keen to use material from my research for a series of stories on decolonising mental health, which could be hosted on Sanity and distributed through other public-spirited media platforms.
Collaborating with you
This investigation will involve exhaustive surveys and follow-up online interviews with four key groups:
- Individuals, including user-survivors, caregivers, practitioners, researchers, policymakers, and funders
- Transnational organisations involved in mental health research and advocacy
- Public health-focused media platforms, and
- Experts on reader-funded journalism models in non-western markets.
I am fortunate that the Sanity community has representatives from each of these groups. You will hear from me soon about how I propose to collaborate and shape the project with you.
What will I do after the fellowship?
Sanity is my life’s work. Nothing else I have ever done has meant as much to me. And while Sanity will always remain small and independent, the challenges it seeks to take on are big.
Despite the pandemic-induced glut of media coverage on mental health, the global mental health conversation remains highly superficial and unequal. The mainstream media privileges the narrow biomedical model of human distress over systemic and structural ills such as poverty, inequality, and discrimination. The narrative is also disproportionately controlled by power centres in a handful of high-income countries, mostly in the west.
As such, it glosses over devastating global imbalances, such as the fact that the vast majority of people with mental health challenges in low- and middle-income countries — home to 80% of humanity — are denied access to even the most basic care. Finally, it ignores the expertise of persons with lived experience, which shows up in stigmatising and harmful coverage of sensitive themes such as suicide.
I am looking at the fellowship as a way for Sanity to build muscle so it can make a dent in this zeitgeist. In the next year or so, I want to build a small team, make space for unheard voices, and tell many more stories that need telling.
But such solemn-sounding goals aside, perhaps this is also just a chance for me to prove to myself that I can do this. "Dream again," like my therapist keeps reminding me, when I find it hard to summon belief. Three cheers to Sanity, hip hip hurray.
If you have always wanted to support my work and were waiting for a good day, perhaps today is that day?
-> Pick up a monthly or annual subscription to Sanity.
-> Or donate any amount you wish by clicking here (for Indian donors) or here (for international donors).
Thank you. - Tanmoy