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Release: Nov. 18, 2002

Iowa Consortium for Mental Health promotes ways to help mentally ill offenders

In the past decade, Iowa, like most states, has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of prison inmates with mental health problems. In response, University of Iowa Health Care experts recently organized educational programming to help professionals in mental health, corrections and related agencies better understand and serve people with mental illness who already are in or at risk of entering the correctional system.

Between July and September, the Iowa Consortium for Mental Health, housed at the University of Iowa, offered a series of regional meetings and a series of Iowa Communications Network (ICN) talks related to mentally ill or substance-abusing offenders. Attendance for the six-part ICN programming far exceeded expectations, with more than 900 individuals attending one or more sessions at 63 sites across the state.

The programming was funded by a grant from the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), and major partners included the Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Community Corrections Improvement Association.

"There is increasing awareness about the interface of mental health issues and corrections issues because of the concern that the criminal justice system has become a de facto mental health system," said Michael Flaum, M.D., UI associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Iowa Consortium for Mental Health. "We have known for a while that many seriously mentally ill people end up in prison, so our project was one response to this problem."

The first part of the project focused on communication and coordination between the different agencies that deal with the mentally ill who commit or who are at risk of committing crimes. These meetings were held at six locations around the state in June and July, each averaging about 80 attendees. Three of the meetings were held in prisons.

"Those meetings were meant to bring corrections folks into the same room as the mental health and substance abuse/drug rehabilitation community experts to get them talking to one another," Flaum said. "If you work in a prison and have an inmate coming up for a discharge, being able to successfully help transition that person back into the community depends on the degree to which you understand what area mental health services are available and how they can be accessed.

"Similarly, individuals who work in community mental health often have no idea of the limitations and parameters that are inherently part of the corrections system. For most of them, it was the first time actually setting foot in a prison. So our goal was to get these groups of people who take care of this overlapping clientele to work together," he added.

In addition, at each meeting, attendees heard personal testimony from individuals with mental illness who have been in the corrections system and benefited from innovative programs sponsored by the DHS to improve transition from prison back to the community.

The second component of the project consisted of the ICN program series to help people who interface with mentally ill offenders understand some of the most common mental health disorders. "From Streets to Cells and Back Again" covered psychotic disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse as it relates to mental illness, antisocial personality disorder and assertive community treatment.

Flaum said the organizers had anticipated educating up to 200 people at 15 sites statewide. However, as word of the continuing education opportunity spread, the UI Telemedicine Resource Center expanded it to 63 sites. Ultimately, 916 individuals registered, representing institutional corrections (prison administration and staff), community corrections (parole and probation officers) and, primarily, community mental health providers such a physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors.

"As registrations came in we took note where people were from to make sure we had enough sites so that they wouldn't have to travel too far," said Susan Zollo, program coordinator for the continuing medical education division in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. "This ICN program included more sites than we had ever done and was broader in scope in that participants were not only nurses and physicians but also included a significant number of community mental health professionals and counselors."

"The hunger for this information was remarkable," Flaum said. "We were convinced by this response that more of this type of programming is needed."

PowerPoint presentations from the six ICN sessions are available online by clicking on "events" at www.ICMentalHealth.org/.

The Iowa Consortium for Mental Health is part of the UI department of psychiatry. Brenda Hollingsworth, consortium administrator, also helped organize the educational events.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide. Visit UI Health Care online at www.uihealthcare.com.