Investigate your university’s mental health services

The Centers for Disease Control recently announced a disturbing rise in suicide rates across the country. This might be a good time to look into mental health services at your school. Now, investigating mental health is difficult. Two federal laws keep deny you access to a lot of information: There’s HIPPA –the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and there is FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The first protects an individual’s health records and the other protects student educational records.

But you can still do a solid investigation. First off, ask for staffing levels at your health center and break down for physicians and mental health professionals. Ask for the budgets. You are entitled to both. Then do a per capita — divide those numbers by the total number of students enrolled at your school. Then see if you can find comparable figures for other schools in your system or state. Ask for the same numbers for five years ago and 10 years ago to see if staffing and spending has kept up with enrollment.

You might try crowdsourcing to find students who have used or tried to get help from the mental health system. Find the director of your local suicide prevention organization and hotline and see if they have been seeing an increase in students.

There are some good resources out there:

Reporting on suicide

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has guides for journalists.

You might also check out this story that the Yale Daily News did in 2016 on the experience on students who return to school after withdrawing for mental health reasons.

Iowa public university students must fork over ever higher fees

The Des Moines Register has been combing through reports of the Iowa Board of Regents  and found that students at three public universities Iowa State, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa are getting hit with increases on all kinds of non-tuition fees for things that tuition used to pay for.

This is a national problem. My students found the same thing happening at the California State University System when they took a look at rising fees there a few years ago. You might want to take a look at your own university tab and see what kinds of fees you have to pay. Then start asking your administration to break out what the money generated by each fee actually funds. You might find that administrators have a lot of leeway into how they can spend student fee money.

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It’s not too early to form an I-Team

Even at a small campus paper, you can do a big investigation if you plan ahead. See if you can get four to five people interested in taking on a big project. Over a term you’ve got between 10-15 weeks to carry it out. Rarely these days do reporters take on big projects by themselves. That’s particularly true since it is no longer enough to prove a case and write up a story. These days, you need to package your story and that means art, video and audio. So who do you want on an I-Team? Look for people with different skills:

  • Someone good with numbers and spreadsheets.
  • Someone with good news judgement — who can spot the story in all the information you are bound to gather.
  • Someone who can handle the visuals– the photos and videos.
  • Someone good with audio.
  • And of course, a solid interviewer.

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Okay, this is the A-Team and you want an I-Team. But note how each member of the A-Team brought different skills to the team.

Make sure everyone understands who is in charge. You don’t want to put a lot of work into a big reporting project only to have it fall apart over disagreements. There needs to be someone in charge who can make the difficult calls when disagreements arise.