Journalists expose weaknesses in Idaho’s fragmented, threadbare mental health system

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at

Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton


Emilie Ritter Saunders

Last fall, The Idaho Statesman newspaper and NPR member station Boise State Public Radio ran a series titled, “In Crisis,” that explored Idaho’s fragmented and underfunded mental health care system.

Statesman business reporter Audrey Dutton (@IDS_Audrey) and Emilie Ritter Saunders (@EmilieRSaunders), who was then the BSPR digital content coordinator, collaborated on the series. Both journalists produced stories for print, radio and online.

Dutton and Saunders found that Idaho’s threadbare mental health care system does not serve well the many Idahoans who need quality, timely and appropriate behavioral and mental health care.

Their work could serve as a blueprint for journalists covering this challenging story in any state. In the series, Dutton and Saunders reported that the state does not have enough psychiatrists or treatment facilities for the population they serve and that it doesn’t have enough mental health resources for the state’s poorest residents.

They also report that about 25 percent of the state’s residents are living with a mental illness, which is a bit higher than the national average of 20 percent. And, they found, Idaho has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, about 48 percent higher than the national rate.

As is common throughout the United States, Dutton and Saunders wrote that, in addition to leaving many Idahoans without proper care, the mental health system is so frayed that the police are often called when a patient suffers a mental health crisis and the state’s courts and jails are among the largest providers of mental health care. Sadly, they added, those with mental illness frequently are hospitalized because more appropriate settings for mental health care are unavailable. They also found that the state Medicaid program serves those in need inadequately.

Read more about how they did the reporting in this article for AHCJ members.

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