Social Work Students Take on Criminal Mental Health

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 64 percent of inmates showed symptoms of a mental health disorder in 2006. Upon release, many of these men and women were left without medication, food, housing and support.

University of Utah master of social work graduates Rebecca Brown and Lynn Unger are using their experience in the U’s forensic social work program to provide hope and support for these men and women.

“It is really sad when you see someone who is mentally ill go into a store and take a bag of chips and just wait to get arrested without even opening the bag,” said Unger, who is now employed by Salt Lake County. “It’s because they know they get medication in jail, they get three meals a day, and they have a roof over their head.”

In August 2012, Brown founded the Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) Transportation program to combat this cycle of recidivism by linking recently released mentally ill prisoners with the resources they need to begin building a new life.

ATI Transportation provides mentally ill clients with a ride from the jail to mental-health resources — a simple concept that has yielded big results. This past year ATI Transportation provided 232 clients with rides to mental health resources, 89 percent of which attached to services within 30 days.

The program required a considerable amount of vision and dedication on the part of Brown and Unger — work that included rewriting a judicial order and creating a new position to bridge the gap between legal and mental health services.

“We are able to pick up their medications immediately, get them to the pharmacy on site, and, if they need it, start assisting them with case management or housing,” said Brown, program founder and director of Adult Services for Valley Behavioral Health. “It’s an immediate link and access to services, which in the past has been something that is difficult and becomes more difficult the longer a client is off their medications and back on the street.”

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