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School to partner with state to train probation officers to better understand mental illness

The UNC School of Social Work is partnering with the North Carolina departments of Public Safety and Health and Human Services to expand a program that aims to provide support to probation officers who are supervising offenders with mental illness.

The “specialty mental health probation program” is an extension of a project that Associate Professor Gary Cuddeback initiated several years ago to train probation officers across the state and to develop specialty mental health probation pilot programs in Wake and Sampson counties. The goal: to help probation officers better understand and recognize severe mental illness.

This spring, additional specialty mental health probation programs will be developed in Brunswick, Durham, Guilford, McDowell, Mecklenburg and Orange counties. The project is being funded by a $679,000 grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.

“At any given time in North Carolina, about 15 percent to 20 percent of the approximately 100,000 individuals on probation have a mental illness,” Cuddeback said. “Ultimately, our goal is to improve mental health outcomes and to improve criminal justice outcomes for offenders with mental illness. We hope to see lower revocation and recidivism rates and better connection to mental health services among the offenders who receive specialty mental health probation.”

Thus far, Cuddeback’s team has provided mental health training to 2,100 officers and other stakeholders across the state, including education around psychiatric medications, the signs and symptoms of severe mental illness, and services for persons with mental illness.

Probationers with severe mental illness often face difficult challenges accessing housing, employment and behavioral health services—all of which can affect their probation outcomes. The specialty mental health probation program was developed to provide on-going training, such as advanced motivational interviewing and mental health supervision, to help specialty mental health probation officers work more closely with their probationers to tackle some of those challenges head on, Cuddeback explained. In addition, specialty mental health probation officers have reduced caseloads and work exclusively with offenders with severe mental illness.

“What we hope to see from this program are officers who have a better understanding of mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders and who can better connect probationers with local behavioral health providers,” he said. “These specialized officers know the language and the questions to ask, and they can identify when someone’s mental health is deteriorating, which might spur them to pick up the phone and coordinate with a probationer’s local behavioral health provider for additional support.”

Cuddeback, who is working on the project with Assistant Professor Amy Wilson, Clinical Assistant Professors Marilyn Ghezzi and Tonya VanDeinse, and Research Associate Stacy Burgin, is currently collecting data from the pilot program and hopes to have some initial results soon.

To date, the evidence for specialty mental health probation is limited. Cuddeback’s team is conducting a large randomized controlled trial with hopes of growing that evidence.

“The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has been really forward thinking in addressing these issues head on and has been very receptive to working with me and the team here to help ensure that the mental health needs of probationers are addressed so that they have the best chance to have successful probation outcomes,” Cuddeback said.