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Two College of Social Work professors are working with the South Carolina Department of Corrections to address the mental health needs of inmates and stem the cycle of crime. Dr. Dana DeHart and Dr. Aidyn Iachini have been awarded a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to develop a training curriculum on the subject of offenders’ mental health. Dr. DeHart hopes this new curriculum will “address a constellation of needs” for a variety of stakeholders.

After Dr. DeHart’s two decades of research in the field, it’s become clear to her that many offenders struggle with a variety of mental health issues that are not being adequately addressed, including post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, substance abuse, and culture shock from re-entering society after release. Left unacknowledged and untreated, trauma and mental illness can be a factor in recidivism. Unfortunately, education about the mental health of offenders has been lacking. She and Dr. Iachini find that people working in the correctional field simply don’t have a strong background in how to support inmates’ mental health needs.

Dr. DeHart notes that existing education offers a variety of perspectives on corrections issues across disciplines and programs with little integration. Furthermore, “funding often is not readily available for providing education to corrections professionals or for coordinated mental health care in communities,” says Dr. DeHart. This means that for inmates struggling with mental illness, there is no coordinated system of care and little hope for positive health outcomes.

To solve this problem, Dr. DeHart and Dr. Iachini will develop an innovative curriculum that appeals to what Dr. DeHart calls “existing and emerging professionals”—those currently working within corrections (which is a broad group of people in different roles, from social workers to administrators) and students who may enter that workforce. Dr. Iachini hopes this project will help corrections professionals be “better prepared to address mental health needs.”

This is a “blended learning curriculum,” meaning that it will be delivered via a combination of online and in-person modules. According to Dr. DeHart, the training will address “types of mental health issues with which inmates struggle, alternatives to incarceration, and ways that community providers can coordinate services.” There are also plans for an online module tailored to inmates on the subject of self-care.

Dr. DeHart and Dr. Iachini are currently forming an advisory board with the South Carolina Department of Corrections and other community members and organizations in order to find out their needs. Dr. Iachini feels that “listening to what folks need and want is critical for engagement” in the project and is a must for community-engaged research.

With the curriculum being pulled from the fields of social work, sociology, and criminology, collaboration is one of the researchers’ favorite aspects of this kind of project. Both Dr. DeHart and Dr. Iachini emphasize that everything they do is informed by listening to others. “I love working with community organizations and individuals and finding out what will be helpful for them,” says Dr. Iachini. “One of the nice things about being in South Carolina is that agencies are so willing to work with us,” she adds, also noting that the COSW has strong relationships with state and community agencies.

After the training is piloted and revised, it will be accessible to all who wish to use it. Dr. DeHart and Dr. Iachini hope to enhance the preparedness of corrections professionals nationwide through their open-use curriculum, leading to better care for those who need it, a broader understanding of mental health care, and ultimately a lower rate of recidivism for those caught in a cycle of crime due to their mental health issues.

“We would want to address mental health issues for those involved in the justice system as early as possible so that they do not become deeply enmeshed in the justice system,” explains Dr. DeHart, and “we would like to establish a continuum of care, so that when they re-enter communities they are less likely to re-enter the justice system.”  Ultimately, training on mental health issues will lead to better outcomes for everyone—inmates, corrections professionals, and communities.

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