HomeHealthMental HealthA Los Angeles Times project uses puppets to tackle mental health concepts

A Los Angeles Times project uses puppets to tackle mental health concepts

When Salma Loum first visited California, one of the first places she went was the world famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“When you’re an immigrant, you have this image in your head that this is going to be the best of Hollywood,” recalls Loum, who is from Egypt.

The student expected glitz and glamour. What she found instead hit her hard. Every few steps on the iconic walk there was a homeless person. She wondered how she could help.

That visit was more than a decade ago, but the experience has stayed with Loum, who is now a data journalist. Shet still had questions about homelessness, such as: How do you define homeless people? Do you define homeless people in your neighborhood as your neighbors?

Loum’s desire to impress led her to pitch the idea “headlines,” a children’s news show led by puppets. In October, the Los Angeles Times appeared, of which Loum was a member 2021-2022 Los Angeles Times Fellowship classtogether with the Bob Baker Puppet Theater to produce the four-episode video series focusing on mental health concepts. Two puppets — a palm tree named Palmy Nomanderson, an award-winning journalist from Jamaica, and Lora Jacaranda, a Pasadena parrot who is the “Head-lines” reporter on the streets of LA — break down concepts for kids.

“All this education starts with the youth, right? When we’re young, we start building all these skills that we put in our toolbox: talking about mental health, opening up all this communication to be able to express our feelings, things like that,” said Loum, who is the creator-director of the series and now a freelance data journalist.”And I felt like it was really necessary to teach our youth what it means to be homeless in the United States, especially in LA”

The project – part of the newspaper’s mental health initiative, For Your Mind – consists of four episodes: the first two focused on anxiety and homelessness. The remaining episodes, due later this month, will deal with fear and sadness. “Head-lines” offers coping skills and has resources and conversation starters on the topics to help adults engage the youth in their lives.

For Jaclyn Cosgrove, assistant mental health editor for the Los Angeles Times and executive producer of the project, “Head-lines” is a combination of mental health and media literacy. “Palmy is a news anchor and Lora is a street reporter. It also introduces kids to those concepts while also being a show about mental health,” they said. “I feel like there’s a multi-layered approach that we were thinking about here. We wanted these kids to start understanding how journalists basically act, even though these two are a bit dumb.

Lora, the parrot reporter, is tailor-made for the series, according to Winona Bechtle, director of development and partnerships at Bob Baker Marionette Theater. She said her team wanted to create a doll that could “convincingly engage in a ‘live’ conversation in the street. Palmy, she said, was created with “the classic television news anchor in mind — but with a touch of sweetness and charm that we also hoped would be disarming and friendly to our audience.” The dolls were intricately made: their bodies were made of foam, Palmy’s face and Lora’s beak were 3D printed, and Lora’s feathers were made of laser-cut felt.

Bechtle said they wanted the characters to be both interactive and reflective of Los Angeles. “This project was an exciting opportunity to create two new dolls that really paid homage to LA, so we decided that the classic palm trees that line the streets of most neighborhoods and the typical green parrots that fly around and screech all day , became great characters to begin with,” she said in an email.

This series, Bechtle said, was a true partnership. She said her team tried every step of the way to determine how best to support the project. She added that her team felt the Los Angeles Times journalists “really wanted to push the boundaries of what’s possible when puppetry and news meet.”

Salma Loum, a data journalist and the creator-director of the “Head-lines” series, poses with the puppet, Palmy Nomanderson, on set.
(Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)

In the homelessness episode, Palmy is sitting at his anchor desk about to tell a story about a Santa Monica sea lion who became an internet sensation when he abruptly quits. He says something is on his head and the voice of an apparent producer takes the show off the air. When they talk again a few seconds later, Palmy explains that his good friend, Eucalyptus, and her son had to move out of their apartment after she fell ill, lost her job, and ran into rent arrears. They are now homeless.

“I think it’s important to talk about our friends and everyone in our community who is homeless,” says Palmy.

The newsreader with bright green palm fronds on his head immediately dives into a story about homelessness. He hires child psychiatrist Dr. Roya Ijadi-Maghsoodi on the show to explain what it means to be homeless and offer advice on how to talk about it. “It doesn’t mean that someone has done anything wrong or bad to become homeless, and in our city many people become homeless simply because they don’t have enough money to pay the rent on the property they live in.” explains Ijadi-Maghsoodi “It also doesn’t mean it can happen to you or your family, but it’s something we can think about to help.”

Palmy then gives airtime to Lori, who reports live from the street and interviews a boy named James. He shares his experience of seeing homeless people near tents while out with his mother. James says he thought about waving to them, but felt nervous and crossed the street with his mother. He wants to know if there’s anything he can do to help them. Ijadi-Maghsoodi then shares her thoughts. The show then returns it to Lori, who enlists James to ask other kids what home means to them.

Making each episode required a lot of behind-the-scenes work and coordination. Cosgrove, Loum and reporters Lila Seidman and Colleen Shabby consulted the children and parents in their lives.

“We’ve all had to slow down a bit and think, ‘What would a kid understand?'” Cosgrove said. “As a journalist you have to think about your audience. And in this case, our audience was children. And we really wanted this to be content that would primarily serve kids, but maybe as adults you would watch it as well.

Loum said she would like to see “Headers” open a line of communication between children and the adults in their lives.

“I hope this is helpful to someone so they don’t have to figure this information out when they’re in their 30s. They can just acknowledge this, be able to help as best they can when you’re 7 or 10,” said she. “I feel like I’m one step ahead of the issues. We can add all of these tools and our skills to our communication, and just be able to talk and have an honest conversation about mental health issues in our society.

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