How to access the information you need to cover mental illness at your school

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Editor’s note: This story provides tips for finding information about mental health in schools. For guidance on ethical considerations while covering these stories, please consult National Alliance on Mental Illness or Active Minds. For legal considerations, contact SPLC’s legal hotline

Mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are rising among teenagers. According to Active Minds, a national nonprofit dedicated to mental health awareness and education for students, 50% of mental health issues begin by age 14; 75% begin by age 24. But privacy concerns, lack of access to records and data, and hesitancy among students to talk to the media make covering youth mental illness a challenge.

Finding Sources

One of the primary challenges for reporting on mental health issues at schools is finding the right sources and getting them to talk on the record. 

Reporters Lois Collins and Sara Israelsen covered anxiety in Utah teenages for a year in a series called “Generation Vexed” for Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper. They said it is vital to find out who the school’s point person on mental health is and start by talking to them. In high school, that can mean school nurses, career/college counselors and school counselors. For college, student journalists should first reach out to the health center or counseling center. 

They also emphasized the importance of building strong, trusting relationships with sources, which takes time. Collins said the best way to approach interviews with hesitant sources is to start by speaking with them without recording or taking notes. This will help sources feel more comfortable talking, and they may choose to go on the record later, although they should not feel pressured to do so. It also gives reporters helpful background information about prevalent mental health issues at the school. 

Collins and Israelsen said to cast a wide net to find sources — knowledgeable staff and administrators can help connect reporters to students or groups who might be willing to share their stories. If schools aren’t willing to talk to reporters about mental health, they can reach out to local experts like district mental health services. Reporters can also try crowdsourcing. The Seattle Times is currently asking its community for concerns, questions and opinions to bolster their coverage of mental health in local schools. They’ve offered multiple ways to reach reporters, including email and text. 

Israelsen encouraged reporters to practice engaged journalism when reporting about mental health in schools — explain the reason behind writing the story and listen to sources’ concerns. Israelsen said reporters should try to maintain relationships with sources after a story is published — they can be helpful for future stories, connecting with new sources and getting story tips.

Israelsen also advised reporters to look beyond the school and add context about mental illness in the community at large by talking to community experts, researchers at nearby universities and the county health department.

Accessing Data

Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds, said college counseling centers and high school counselors typically keep track of data internally.

This information includes how many students sought out the school’s mental health resources and how many students are engaged with one-on-one therapy, group counseling sessions, the average turnout for awareness events and the average number of students who come to the health center for help. However, private or identifying information can not be disclosed. 

Private schools are not obligated to hand over this information, but may do so willingly. Public schools fall under public records laws, so student journalists can file a public records request.

Data on mental health in high schoolers is not as comprehensive as college, but state and federal health agencies can be sources of statistical data, and school counselors may be able to answer school-specific questions, identify trends and provide context about the issue at the school. During interviews, reporters can ask to be pointed to statistics, datasets or surveys. 

The local health department should have annual reports and contact information available on their websites. Similarly, public school districts usually post detailed budget reports that include counselor salaries or any major budget cuts. If that information is not accessible through the district website, reporters can request it from the district communications person. For public colleges, every university employee’s salary is public information and can be found online. Private schools are not required by law to publish detailed budget reports for the public, however reporters can ask for that information from their sources.

The Student Press Law Center has a public records letter generator to make formulating effective FOIA requests easier. The tool includes state-specific information including when the record holder must respond to the request.

Collins recommended reporters at public schools send a FOIA request for the budget of the school counselor(s), the funding mental health programs receive and/or total operating budget of the counseling center. Reporters can learn: 

  • How much taxpayer money is funding counseling
  • If the school is adequately meeting the needs for mental health resources
  • How local schools and districts compare 
  • How schools have prioritized mental health resources compared to other expenditures such as athletics  

Individual student records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), so reporters may have certain records requests denied or heavily redacted. Although schools can provide budgetary information and non-identifying data, they can’t release information that would personally identify individual students. So reporters might be able to get the number of students who received counseling in a certain school year, but they can’t get a list of names. 

Mike Hiestand, SPLC senior legal counsel, said FERPA does require students to be able to access their own records, so a source can obtain their own record and choose to share it with a reporter. 

Reporters can find additional information, like research and numbers on the national scale from nonprofit organizations and government resources including:

More resources can be found here.

Horne said Active Minds and other nonprofits focused on mental health awareness can help connect reporters to knowledgeable local experts working to address mental health issues within the community.

Writing the story

Collins said she recommends student journalists start by writing an exploratory story about the state of mental health in their school. She suggested including data from authoritative sources like the school nurse or counseling center, information about how mental illnesses manifest in teenagers and resources available to students. After the first story is published, more sources may want to share their experiences with mental illness, facilitating follow up stories. 

At Westford Academy in Massachusetts, staff members of the Ghostwriter created a 16-page issue in January 2019 dedicated to covering student stress at their school.

Ghostwriter Online Managing Editor John Vassiliou, said they looked at the different news, opinion and features angles they could write about stress. Editor-in-Chief Mahi Kandage said that they drew from past and personal experiences to decide which stories they wanted to write. They wrote stories about the school’s new start time allowing students to get more sleep, parent opinions on the amount of homework students get, how the school staff manages stress, how stress affects the teenage brain and more.

“We were really hoping it would raise awareness of what other people are going through in our community and hopefully bring about some change that could maybe help solve the problem,” Kandage said.

Hiestand said to make sure sources, especially minors, are fully aware of what they are consenting to if they agree to an interview. He said that while high school-aged students are able to provide consent for interviews, it is good to get it in writing and even get parental permission before an interview. SPLC has a sample consent form student journalists can use. Additionally, SPLC can provide a libel check before a story is published — set up an appointment through the legal hotline.

Story ideas

  • An exploratory story where administrators and students discuss the pervasiveness of mental illness at the school
  • A breakdown of the budget for the school’s counseling services
    • How does it compare to other schools in the area?
    • How has it changed over time?
    • Has funding increased to match a growing need? (Can use national data or information from the school in question.)
  • Feature stories about how mental illnesses affects student’s lives
    • This can fit into different beats: a profile about an athlete with anxiety can make for a great sports story
  • Survey students about their experiences with mental illness and write about the results
  • Have resources to identify and assist students with mental illness increased or decreased at your school in the last 5 years?
    • Do they have school counselors and nurses? If so how many?
    • How are teachers and professors emphasizing the importance of mental health in their classrooms?
    • Are there workshops on coping mechanisms for mental illnesses such as anxiety?
    • Assess school responses to mental health crises like a growing number of students with depression or anxiety at the school.
    • Is there outreach to parents/guardians about how to identify stress or signs of mental illness at home?
  • Cover any changes to state, local and federal laws, as well as district and school policies that impact student access to mental health resources.
  • What kind of access do high schoolers and college students have to mental illness treatment?
    • What happens when students can’t get mental health care because their insurance doesn’t cover it and/or they can’t afford it?
  • What is the school / district’s insurance policy for teachers, admin and workers? Does it cover mental health treatment?
  • Does the school have a “mental health day” policy?
  • How do high-stress times of year like finals and SATs affect students’ mental health?
    • Are there more visits to the school counselor during that time?
  • What stigma is there around mental illness? Do students feel like they can tell teachers or professors about their need for accommodation?
  • How do extracurriculars (including sports) help or contribute to student mental illness?
  • Are there noticeable demographic trends (gender, race, age, etc.) in who experiences mental illness versus who receives treatment at the school?
  • Seek out op-eds or letters to the editor about mental illness. 

Reporting ethically

From finding sources to using thoughtful wording in the final story, every step of covering mental health in schools requires careful ethical considerations.

The Carter Center, Active Minds, NAMI , the National Center on Disability and Journalism and DART Center for Journalism and Trauma all have online guides created for reporters covering mental health. Reporters can also consult experts from these organizations for advice on responsibly covering mental health.

Horne pointed out a few basic ethical guidelines when reporting on youth mental health, including using person-first language (saying “a person with mental illness” rather than “mentally ill.”) She said when reporters focus stories on the person, not their mental illness, it “goes a long way in terms of reminding people that there’s nothing inhuman about mental illness.”

Horne also said to add crisis resources, especially for articles that tell emotional, potentially triggering stories, including:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line by texting “Brave” to 741-741
  • Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting “TalkWithUs” to 66746
  • Local crisis center information

These resources are often placed at the end of a story about mental health, or in a sidebar.

SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6318.

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