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With extraordinary access to a psychiatric unit, AP reveals pandemic’s toll on children’s mental health

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To explore the pandemic’s devastating toll on children’s mental health, AP’s Paris team gained extraordinary access to the psychiatric unit at France’s busiest pediatric hospital. The resulting package — text, photos and video — was featured by AP customers around the world, focusing attention on how the mental health of children is affected under the weight of lockdowns, curfews, family upheavals and school closures.

To get inside the unit, Paris correspondent John Leicester worked for months to build trust with hospital authorities and workers, even showing up outside a Paris hospital and convincing doctors by phone to come out and speak with him. Once inside the Robert Debré children’s hospital, Leicester, photographer Christophe Ena and video journalist Nicolas Garriga put down their notebooks and cameras, chatting and playing with the children to become part of the scenery. Then, they discreetly began documenting activity on the floor.

Ena was so unobtrusive that it could easily have seemed to observers that he wasn’t working at all. In fact, he was quietly observing and sizing up potential images the whole time. He employed a variety of techniques to protect the identity of the children in his photos, including selective focus, motion and silhouetting. Other shots were taken from above and behind. What emerged was a vivid look at life inside the unit.

Garriga’s video was no less compelling, with sensitive images of the children, including shots showing hands playing with Legos and a bed with stuffed animals.

Nearing the end of their visit,Leicester learned about an 11-year-old boy,Pablo,who had been admitted just days earlier. Pablo had developed a severe eating disorder as the pandemic shuttered schools and activities,and his weight was dangerously low because he refused to eat anything except small amounts of rice,tuna and cherry tomatoes. The team waited for the boy’s father to come visit, and persuaded him to share the family’s experience. It became the haunting thread through the text story.

To give the reporting global perspective,Leicester included evidence of the problem from other parts of the world. The exclusive all-formats package scored with important AP clients,including PBS,ABC News and Voice of America,as well as with French customers who couldn’t rival AP’s access to this story on their own turf. Calling the problem an international epidemic,Save the Children tweeted: “Read this important story.”

For a sustained effort to gain access,and the sensitive,revealing coverage that followed on this issue touching children and families globally,the trio of Leicester, Ena and Garriga earns AP’s Best of the Week award.

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