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.

Before you leave for the summer..

File some public records act requests.

If you file the now, you could get your hands on some interesting documents for your

foia sample

A sample Freedom of Information Act Request Letter

back to school issue in the fall.


This is a great time to start asking for documents it might take a while for the school to get. Most school administrations work all summer and summer is slow time for them. If your college is a public university, you should consider all records kept as public records. Now, administrators often cite FERPA, the Federal Education Education Rights and Privacy Act (which trumps public records laws) as a reason to withhold records from you.

But this is the end of the year and that gives you some time to educate your educators. 

You can’t get records on individual students but you can get records of large numbers of students if their identities can be redacted — that means taken out, covered up or masked in some way so that no one record can be traced to any individual student or any small group of students. Student records could be compiled into Excel (most are collected via forms and downloaded into Excel compatible databases to begin with). And with excel the school has the ability to replace names, student ID numbers or any other identifying tag with random numbers. That means it turns FERPA-protected info into a non-identifying public record, at least in a public university.

This comes into play with the grades students get in classes. It is a violation of FERPA for the school to tell you what grade student  Dennis Steadman got in Chemistry 103. But you are entitled to a list of all grades given out to the four hundred students  who took Chemistry 103 over the past two years, as long as from that information you can’t identify any particular students.

Or you could get a database of all student grades in Chemistry 103, without any names, but with the database broken into two categories: School athletes and non-athletes, again as long as you are asking for a big enough aggregate number so that when students are broken into those two groups you can’t identify anyone. You might not be able to get the athletes broken into teams for instance because with only 12 students the fencing team, for instance, that number might not be big enough–someone could arguable identify players through the data.

For more information check out the Student Press Law Center has a great letter generator that will give you a boiler plate public records request letter to copy and past into an email according to your state’s law.