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Fund enables research study on parents with mental illness

Private funding plays a significant role in supporting faculty research. In 2007, generous gifts from Sam and Betsy Reeves of Fresno, Calif., and Billy and Janie Armfield of Richmond, Va., helped launch the School of Social Work’s Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund. Over the last five years, an estimated $288,000 has been awarded to more than two dozen faculty and graduate student-led projects. Much of the money has enabled School researchers to collect valuable pilot data that is then used to build more comprehensive studies.

In North Carolina, very little is known about the life circumstances and experiences of parents with severe mental illness who become entangled in the state child welfare system. But a pilot study recently launched by Clinical Assistant Professor Laurie Selz Campbell could help shine a little more light on the subject.

The School of Social Work’s Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund is supporting the project, which focuses on parents with a diagnosed mental illness who live in central North Carolina. Selz Campbell was awarded a nearly $4,500 grant to kick start the study.

A central part of the project will include gauging the needs and challenges of parents with mental illness who become involved with the child welfare system for reports of child abuse or neglect. Although the North Carolina child welfare system does not systematically track this population, research data from other states suggests that parents with mental illness are more likely to become involved with child welfare and are more at risk of losing custody of their children than parents without such health issues, Selz Campbell said.

“Whether that’s because their situations are really that dire or because of some of the system issues, including the stigma of mental illness, we don’t know,” she explained.

Among other goals, Selz Campbell’s study aims to help researchers better understand the circumstances that bring families into contact with the child welfare system and the experiences that individuals have with mental health and child welfare providers. The clinical assistant professor also hopes to learn more about the impact of child welfare involvement on parents and the challenges in coping with parenthood and severe mental illness.

“Given that we want the parents’ voices to be heard, we plan to ask them what they would like to say about their experience with the child welfare system in the context of also dealing with, for example, the symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.”

Finally, the study will consider how mental health and child welfare providers have handled working with parents with mental illnesses. Selz Campbell said she decided to include this part of the project based on discussions with local providers, as well as research data from other states, which suggests that collaboration between the two systems is often extremely challenging. In many cases, providers may have only minimal training that prepares them for this work, Selz Campbell said.

She hopes the study can pinpoint the barriers that professionals in the field have faced and identify where “the system is doing well, and where the system could be improved.”

“If we can identify the gaps, then we can provide more services and more cross training between mental health and child welfare practitioners,” she said.
Although the pilot study is just a start, Selz-Campbell said the Armfield-Reeves funding is vital to helping her address questions around parenthood and mental illness.

“Over the years, I have had hunches about this issue and lots of anecdotal data based on my own experience with people I’ve talked with and clients I’ve worked with. But I think this study will really help to concretely define a direction that we can go in statewide.”

For more information about fundraising priorities and the impact of private giving at the School of Social Work, please contact: Mary Beth Hernandez, Associate Dean for Advancement,