Research associate professor Tonya Van Deinse was awarded a nearly $639,000 Mentored Research Scientist Development Award from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The grant is Van Deinse’s first federal mentorship award and will provide research funding and intensive peer faculty support over the next four years to enhance her work around mental health services within the criminal justice system.
Much of Van Deinse’s interest focuses on evidence-based research that connects people with serious mental illnesses in the criminal legal system to needed treatment. For her NIMH award, Van Deinse will lead a study that aims to enhance linkages to treatment for people with serious mental illnesses who are in the state’s specialty mental health probation (SMHP) program.
Currently offered in 27 counties across North Carolina, SMHP aims to connect people with serious mental illnesses to community-based mental health services. SMHP officers are a vital component of the model and are trained to use problem-solving techniques to address the needs of those on their caseload. The program’s success also depends heavily on coordination and collaboration between probation officers and mental health service providers, Van Deinse said.
“What I’m really interested in is developing strategies that allow for consistent application of the specialty mental health probation program across counties,” she said. “But I also want counties to be able to tailor aspects of the program based on the needs within their communities.”
Van Deinse is particularly interested in the multiple barriers that may hinder or prevent people with serious mental illnesses who are on probation from accessing needed services. Such barriers can include challenges related to turnover of probation officers and behavioral health treatment providers, public and private funding of mental health services as well as inconsistent communication between probation officers and mental health service providers, all of which can impact access to mental health treatment for people on probation.
Over the next few years, Van Deinse will work closely with members of her mentoring committee, including faculty from UNC, George Mason University, Arizona State University and the University of Washington to complete the study. Long-term, Van Deinse hopes to use the study’s findings to prepare and develop a proposal for a larger federally funded project.
Ultimately, Van Deinse sees intervention science as the solution for diverting people with serious mental illnesses away from the criminal justice system.
“The criminal legal system is not the place for people with serious mental illnesses,” she added. “And diversion efforts need to include building a collaborative network of organizations and social networks that can wrap support around individuals to keep them stable and safe within the community.”