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Print, radio reporters team up to expose a fraying mental health system in Idaho Date: 05/20/15

By Audrey Dutton and Emilie Ritter Saunders

Idaho's suicide rate is among the nation's highest. The entire state is a shortage area for psychiatry. We have a high rate of people lacking health insurance, low wages and no Medicaid for most adults. Medicaid behavioral-health coverage is undergoing a shift to managed care.

Despite all this, mental health gets relatively little attention from both policymakers and local media, ourselves included. We're both very interested in this topic, and so we decided to work together to produce a series.

It took us a while to figure out how to tackle such an enormous topic. Our theme crystallized about a month into our reporting – after a couple of dozen interviews – and we started to focus on how Idahoans who lack insurance, or can't find adequate services, end up getting care only in crisis. We looked at emergency room visits, involuntary commitments, jails, homeless shelters and emergency response teams of police and social workers.

Our editors signed on right away. They liked the idea of collaborating across newsrooms, trying something new and they liked the fact that mental health is a topic all of us care about and is often undercovered.

Editors at the Statesman and BSPR cut back on our usual duties for a few weeks to allow time for in-depth interviews, to visit subjects in their homes and work on our writing. That made a huge difference. It meant we could spend the afternoon with a family torn apart by bipolar disorder, who is just now getting help, for example. Such a story is nearly impossible to tell by simply doing interviews over the phone in the newsroom in between deadlines.

For three months, we worked on the reporting and then gave a concerted push to finish it in the last month.

Both of us love data, and how we could use it to tell the story and we love digging through records and documents. So, among the first steps we took were to file records requests and gather data.

Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Emilie Ritter Saunders
Emilie Ritter Saunders

One site was particularly useful ( because we could get suicide rates for Idaho and show how the rate here differs from that of other states. The site is bit intimidating at first, but by experimenting with how to gather the data we needed and by reading the frequently asked questions, we got what we needed.

One idea that helped us was deliberately overestimating how long all the reporting and writing would take. We did so because we expected to encounter problems, and we did. For example, when covering mental health, sources often are reluctant to give permission to use their names. They don’t want their neighbors or coworkers to know about their conditions.

Recognizing that mental illness is a sensitive, private topic, we still set a policy (and made only one exception) to use full names. We believed that doing so would improve our credibility and would help discourage the idea that mental illness is something to hide.

Another step that helped us was having a focused plan. There are a million angles to any mental health story, particularly one as broad as the crisis in our state. For this reason, we found it could be easy to get distracted and want to do it all. To help us stay focused, we started with two or three story ideas and built from there.

Also, we found that the sessions on covering mental health and suicide at AHCJ’s Health Journalism 2014 were immensely helpful. Even the questions from other journalists in those sessions helped to lay the groundwork for our reporting.

When our series was published and broadcast, we learned that those in the mental health community were hungry for coverage of this serious problem. A couple of readers said the series helped them to better understand their loved ones’ mental illnesses. Whether the series will cause any meaningful changes in policy remains to be seen.

We should mention the Statesman’s photographers and video editor helped us produce the series, and BSPR provided NPR-level audio recording gear for the Statesman to use. Here is the series on The Statesman site and at BSPR.

(Editor's note: Dutton revisited the story a year later. See what she found here.)

Audrey Dutton (@IDS_Audrey) is a business reporter for The Idaho Statesman and Emilie R. Saunders (@EmilieRSaunders) was the digital content coordinator for NPR member station Boise State Public Radio. She is now communications director for Montana's Superintendent of Public Instruction.