She’s an award-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter known for health and welfare investigations, and more specifically, for her reporting on mental health issues.

Sr. Carol Thresher, North American provincial leader for the Sisters of the Divine Savior, presents Meg Kissinger, an award-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter, with the 2014 Woman of Faith Award at the SDS Community House, Milwaukee, Sept. 18, 2014. (Submitted photo courtesy Sisters of the Divine Savior)It’s something that is near and dear to Meg Kissinger’s heart.

She was just 19 years old when her sister Nancy, who struggled with bipolar disorder – known as manic depression in the ‘70s, threw herself in front of a train.

Her brother Danny, who also struggled with bipolar disorder, hanged himself in their father’s basement in the ‘90s.

Her family couldn’t believe it.

With everything they knew, they wondered if they could have done more.

“Worst of all, we had kind of a warning. A week before he died, Danny sent us all letters telling us how sorry he was for all the commotion that he caused. ‘Only love and understanding can conquer this disease,’ he said. I wrote that sentence down and I taped it to the side of my computer in the newsroom. Danny and Nancy weren’t around for me to love them anymore, but I vowed that from that day forward, I was going to do what I could to try to understand what killed them; maybe I could help others understand, too,” Kissinger said during a talk she gave last Sept. 18 at the Sisters of the Divine Savior Community House where she received the 2014 Woman of Faith Award.

It’s the deep-seated faith that has guided the St. Eugene, Fox Point, parishioner through her personal life struggles and her oftentimes depressing work, that’s not as well known.

Editor’s nomination led to award

The Salvatorians, who established the award in 2001 to “shine a light on local women whose life work exemplifies faith-inspired service to people in need,” honored Kissinger for her “compassionate coverage of issues surrounding mental illness, a focus of her work for more than 25 years.”

They chose Kissinger, thanks to her editor George Stanley’s “inspirational and glowing nomination,” Salvatorian Sr. Carol Thresher, North American provincial leader, said at the reception that night.

His nomination was special, quoting Scripture up and down.

Meg Kissinger will speak on “The Real Crime: How we treat people with mental illness in jails and prisons,” on Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Friends of the Benedict Center winter luncheon.

The luncheon will be held at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Union, 2200 W. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee, with a reception beginning at 11:30 a.m., followed by the luncheon and presentation. Cost is $35.
Reservations encouraged to Janet Miller: (414) 347-1774,

“Meg has done a remarkable job in helping the least among us as a reporter,” Stanley, vice president and managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote in his nomination.

He wrote about how Kissinger serves the Gospel through her work, explaining that she has won numerous national awards for an almost three-year-long investigation into the effects of the chemical BPA, a carcinogen, which helped in getting it removed from plastic baby bottles, sippy cups and other products in the U.S. and Canada.

He wrote that when many people cross the street or avoid eye contact with people suffering from obvious mental illness, the way people in Jesus’ day treated the blind, deaf and lepers, Kissinger does the opposite.

“Meg does not avoid these people – she acts to help them and to show the rest of us what is going on,” he wrote, noting that the series she did in 2006, “Abandoning Our Mentally Ill,” showing how people with severe mental illness released from mental hospitals to fend for themselves often wound up homeless or living in squalor, led to many changes.

Likens work to Mark’s Gospel

“Her reporting was so powerful that two political enemies – Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Scott Walker – called a truce on the issue to work together for solutions,” he wrote. “Since then, a number of buildings have been constructed or remodeled, providing hundreds of safe, clean housing units for severely ill people, often with a nurse or mental health worker on the premises to help ensure folks take their medications properly, get more intensive help when they need it, and so on.”

He pointed to the work she has done in the last two years with the “Chronic Crisis” series that shows how Milwaukee’s Mental Health Complex, like most of its patients, never gets better, as “her most high-impact work yet.”

“When I think of Meg’s work, I think of the Gospel Mark, Chapter 5, when Jesus was confronted by a man with the exact symptoms we might see today in a person with severe mental illness: ‘The man lived in the tombs and no one could secure him anymore, even with a chain, because he had often been secured with fetters and chains but had snapped the chains and broken the fetters, and no one had the strength to control him. All night and all day, among the tombs and in the mountains, he would howl and gash himself with stones.’

“Jesus did not use his disciples as a shield from the man and continue on his way. He did not cross to the other side of the road and otherwise avoid him. He looked him in the eye, asked him his name, listened to him and then healed him, just as he healed the blind, the lame and the lepers.

“This is how Meg Kissinger has improved the lives of so many of our neighbors and their families – by looking even the least lovable among us in the eye, listening to them, telling their stories and seeking a better way to help them heal.”

Faith a ‘gift’ she cherishes

Honored to receive the Woman of Faith award, Kissinger said faith has always been the most important part of her life, calling it a gift she cherished every day, but just not something she was used to talking about publicly.

“Frankly, I consider my faith to be a very personal relationship between me and God,” she said. “For as much as I like to flap my gums … it makes me squirm a little to stand up here tonight and tell you about it.”

But she did share, “because what good is a gift if you can’t share it?” she added.

Kissinger was the fourth of eight children from Wilmette, Illinois, and said her Catholic faith has been as much a part of her as the blood in her veins, and just as life-sustaining.

“We were lucky enough to have parents who modeled their faith for us constantly,” she said. “My dad was a feisty and fiery salesman and lawyer, and he knew that men and women made mistakes by virtue of their being human, but God, he often told us, is infallible. Concentrate on the sacraments and you’ll never go wrong, he told me throughout one particuluarly rocky time when I was mad at the Catholic Church for about the thousandth time. Having faith doesn’t mean you don’t wrestle with God.”

She said as soon as Pope Paul VI relaxed some rules that allowed priests to celebrate Mass in people’s homes, her dad signed them up – one of her sisters played the guitar, one of her brothers served, and they made an altar out of a coffee table.

“My dad wept uncontrollably as the pastor consecrated bread and wine right there on our front porch,” Kissinger said, noting that her mother had a much quieter approach to her faith.

“She saw dignity in people from every rung of the social ladder and she showed us by example how important it was to visit the sick and to tend to those less fortunate than we. Everyone was welcome at the Kissinger house. We never locked the front door.”

They welcomed everyone – a random friend, a goofy relative that no one thought to invite – and started every meal with a prayer.

She also remembers that no matter how tired her mother was after cooking, taking the kids to Girl Scouts, orthodontist appointments and basketball practices, she ended her day kneeling at her bedside in prayer.

“Her humility gave us strength, and we would need a lot of strength,” Kissinger said.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, which she described as “crazy days,” with the Vietnam War, Watergate scandal and the sexual revolution, prayer became a retreat for Kissinger, “an oasis of peace in some very tumultuous times.”

Sacraments offer calm, comfort

The sacraments brought her a calm and comfort she couldn’t find anywhere else.

“I found strength and courage in confession, especially in confession, and refreshment and renewal in holy Communion,” she said. “These dynamics would serve me especially well when things began to get tough at home.”

Especially when Nancy threw herself in front of a train after unsuccesfully trying to kill herself with pills.

“My parents spent a fortune sending Nancy to the best hospitals they could find, but science and medicine, especially in those days, and especially for that disease, could only do so much,” Kissinger said. “I remember how anxious my mom and dad were at the possibility that we couldn’t have a funeral Mass for Nancy; suicide’s not just against the law, it’s against the laws of the Catholic Church. I’ll never forget the relief on their faces when they walked into St. Francis (Xavier) that June morning and saw not one, but three priests up on the altar.”

Mental illness wasn’t talked about then, and they didn’t have a family therapist to help them cope, so they went to a Cubs game – Kissinger’s idea — because she thought it would be nice to do something cheerful, and then continued on with their lives.

It wasn’t until she had graduated college, married and had her first child, that Kissinger wrote a personal essay about Nancy. One night while caring for her son, who had a fever, she flipped through her old high school yearbook and discovered notes her sister wrote in the margins – notes she had never seen.

“I wrote an essay describing it for the old Sunday Journal Magazine and the editor put it on the cover,” Kissinger said. “This is what I wrote, ‘As time passes, I worry that Nancy will fade from my memory and I will hate that. I guess that’s why I was so glad to discover those little notes in that yearbook. It was as though Nancy had come back from the dead for just a few minutes to share a laugh with me and for a moment, it felt like we were back on our front porch, howling and cackling like we did when we were kids, and I remembered her more vividly than I had in years. She had a great laugh.’”

She received a lot of nice letters about that essay, which seemed to strike a chord with people who had lost friends or relatives to suicide.

But that was it on that topic, because “glory doesn’t linger long in the newsroom,” she said. It wasn’t until the mid-‘90s, when her youngest brother took his life, that she would revisit the topic.

She got her next big break in 1999 when she and a colleague set out to see what happened to people who used to be cared for in mental hospitals. Many were homeless, in jail or living in squalor, and she shared the story of a couple who experienced how the system repeatedly failed their son.

“I think that’s when I started to say the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi every day on the elevator up to the newsroom,” she said. “It’s four floors to get up there and if I say it fast enough I can work it all in. ‘Lord make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love; injury, pardon; doubt, faith; despair, hope; darkness, light.’ Ding.”

Most challenging piece asks why

Kissinger said she did her most challenging and important piece on mental illness, Stanley’s idea, in 2011.

“He had me take a look at why in this day and age with all this science and technology at our fingertips, we can’t do a better job identifying people who are dangerous and getting them help before something awful happens. I knew this was going to stir up a hornet’s nest,” she said. “The question of people living with mental illness being dangerous, even though some are, is very offensive to many people who have mental illness.”

Her dad was dying of cancer at the time and she wasn’t sure she was going to get the story done before he died, but she valued his thoughts.

“I was especially interested in his views both as a lawyer and as someone who had lost two children to mental illness,” Kissinger said. “‘Tell them shame on you,’ he told me. ‘Shame on this country for not doing better for these poor souls. America is a great country,’ my dad said – he was a World War II veteran. ‘This country can do better than this.’”

That motivates her to continue her work.

“So, that’s what I try to do with the amazing heavy lifting of my editors Greg Borowski (assistant managing editor, projects and investigations; Politifact Wisconsin editor) and George Stanley; I bear witness to the suffering of people with mental illness,” she said. “It’s a job, but it’s also a prayer. I’m lucky that way, to have a job that lets me live my faith. It’s a privilege that sometimes, very frankly, can feel like a burden.”