How I Reported the Story: High need, low accessibility: Oglethorpe County residents face barriers to mental health care, even as teens and schools are willing to have the conversation

Read how Sydney Rainwater and Navya Shukla reported this piece, High need, low accessibility: Oglethorpe County residents face barriers to mental health care, even as teens and schools are willing to have the conversation for The Oglethorpe Echo, which was written through our participation with The Carter Center’s Mental Health Parity Collaborative. The collaborative is a group of newsrooms that are covering stories on mental health care access and inequities in the U.S. The partners on this project include The Carter Center, The Center for Public Integrity and newsrooms in select states across the country. Editors included Nora Fleming, The Carter Center’s newsroom collaborative manager, and UGA Professor Andy Johnston, editor in residence for The Oglethorpe Echo. The students also consulted during the reporting process with Sofi Gratas, a former Covering Poverty contributor who graduated from the UGA College of Journalism and Mass Communication and now participates in the collaborative covering rural health and health care for GPB (Georgia Public Broadcasting).

Their reporting process ran from October 2023 through January 2024, with February and March 2024 devoted to editing and gathering images. The story was published in The Oglethorpe Echo on March 21, 2024. That day, the paper received a letter to the editor saying, “I congratulate the Echo on featuring a story on the difficulties and necessity of mental health care which you featured on the first page of this issue.  My late wife suffered from severe mental health issues in her later life and the burden of them on both her and her family was substantial.”

Going into this story, my writing partner, Sydney Rainwater, and I were aware of the statewide need for better mental health resources and what the role our story could play in highlighting this need in a smaller community like Oglethorpe County. However, the challenge lay in finding the voices that could do the story justice. With an issue as sensitive and personal as mental health, and with a large part of the issue being the lack of conversation surrounding it, it took time to find the information and the sources that would pull our story together. 

What helped us the most was relying on the community we were trying to cover. Because Oglethorpe County is so tightly knit, each source we talked to pointed us in another direction, connected us with someone new, or told us something we were missing. Even though we ended up interviewing an immense number of sources, and many of them couldn’t make it into our final story, each conversation painted a clearer picture of the issue we were addressing and gave our story more direction.

In-person interactions, such as when I visited Oglethorpe County Elementary School to take photos for the story, allowed me to see the work being done in the county and make a personal connection with the topic of mental health. Coming out of that classroom, where the students had spent the past hour exploring mental health strategies in such an open, welcoming environment, reassured me that the story we’d spent months of time and effort on mattered, and that it needed to be told.

The importance of relying on others for this story extended to my partner, Sydney, and our editors. Tackling such a complex topic, reaching out to as many people as we did and incorporating so many perspectives into our final product would not have been possible without the constant trust and teamwork between all of us throughout the semester. —Navya Shukla

My writing partner, Navya Shukla, and I started working on this piece almost as soon as we joined the Covering Poverty team last fall. From the start, we knew how impactful this story could be to the Oglethorpe County community and how important it would be to the larger mental health conversation. We each put forth our absolute best efforts because we believed in the story.

There were certainly challenges. Finding an informative yet positive perspective was a struggle at first. We interviewed countless sources, many of whom didn’t end up in the final product, because talking about mental health is still not easy. As time-consuming as it may have been, I found that the more in-person, casual conversations we had with sources and community members, the more secure I felt in the direction of the story. 

Collaboration was the name of the game for this one. Our story would not be the same had we not leaned on each other for ideas, gathered advice from our editors and talked with as many sources as possible. —Sydney Rainwater

How I Reported the Story: Children with Developmental Disabilities in Georgia Struggle to Get Needed Care

Read how journalist Jacqueline GaNun reported this piece: Children with Developmental Disabilities in Georgia Struggle to Get Needed Care

This story is the result of an idea that evolved throughout the reporting process. I was initially assigned to work on a story about children with disabilities who are living in nursing homes. As I dug deeper and interviewed people, a related but different story emerged, one about children in residential treatment facilities and the shortcomings of Georgia’s mental health care system as a whole.

The first step in the process was reading the Covering Poverty disability beat guide. The datasets, language guides and information about the nuances of disability and poverty provided me with a foundation I relied on throughout interviewing and writing.

I interviewed Zolinda Stoneman, the director of the University of Georgia’s Institute on Human Development and Disability. The institute’s grant funded this reporting project. Our talk gave me a more comprehensive picture of the history of mental health care and institutionalization in Georgia, including the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision. Olmstead ruled it unconstitutional to segregate people with disabilities.

Stoneman recommended another source: the Children’s Freedom Initiative, an organization founded by the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office. My interview with  advocate Joe Sarra provided me with a wealth of information and context about the state’s mental health care system.

I asked Sarra if he knew of any families that would be willing to share their story. Initially, still pursuing the idea about children in nursing homes, I asked about families with children who had spent time in those facilities. Sarra put me in touch with Kelli Lewis, the mom of two boys with special needs. Neither had spent time in a nursing home but both had spent cumulative years in state residential psychiatric facilities.

The article hinges on the story of Lewis’  sons, mainly Ahav, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She  talked candidly about her experience as a mother caring for her sons and the gaps in the system that mean they don’t get adequate care. After talking with her, I wrote my first draft and fact-checked it. 

I knew data was important for the article, and it was fairly simple to find statistics on the number of children in Georgia’s care system and facts about the state Medicaid program.

One of the key steps in the writing and editing process was to ensure the story met the AP Stylebook’s standards for reporting about disabilities; the AP Stylebook updated and expanded its guidance in 2021. I made changes to some of the wording to reflect those standards. For example, I changed “struggling with his own mental illnesses” to “experiencing his own mental illnesses” in order to not perpetuate stereotypes that disabilities are something negative to be overcome.

This experience deepened my interviewing skills, particularly when talking with sources about sensitive conditions that affect their daily lives. It reinforced the necessity of having empathy to ensure people are portrayed in a way that is fair and honest and doesn’t contribute to harmful stereotypes.

Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.

Explainer Pieces: Child Tax Credit

Here’s one idea for service journalism on poverty-related matters.

Check out the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s explainer below about child tax credit payments. The AJC created the one-page document from a piece published on and in print in summer 2021, just as the monthly payments began.

This guide — using an ASF (alternative story form) with the Q&A setup — is intended to be shared with people who need to know whether they qualify, what it takes to receive it and more information about the child tax credit.

Download and share the document (with AJC credit) with readers/viewers, community groups, nonprofits, individuals and families.

If you do so, please let us know (email so we can keep track of efforts to spread the information.