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Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Individuals With Justice Involvement

Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Individuals With Justice Involvement


During my time at The Fortune Society, I have come to appreciate an important component of our mission: never giving up on individuals with justice involvement regardless of how many chances they need at rebuilding their lives. I personally benefitted from this value as a client, and continue to as an Intake Coordinator and Receptionist today.

In 1999, I first came to Fortune for Treatment Services while I was on probation. Unfortunately, at the age of nineteen, I did not value Fortune to the extent that I do today. For nine months, I viewed it as a regular drug treatment program and did not try hard to rebuild my life. In 2009, I came in contact with the criminal justice system again.

While I was on Rikers Island, I realized that I wanted to end my involvement with drugs and criminal activity, and instead pursue a life of purpose. I asked myself, What is my passion? As I reflected, I remembered that I enjoyed helping other incarcerated individuals around me when they needed help. A light bulb went off in my head as I realized that I wanted a career dedicated to directly helping others. I set out to find this work after my release in 2010 and attended the College of New Rochelle for two years, studying psychology.

I started interning for Fortune’s Individualized Corrections Achievement Network (I-CAN) program through ACCES-VR, an organization that provides vocational rehabilitation services. While interning, I perceived Fortune differently than I did as a client. I began to see Fortune as a family with many valuable programs. To succeed, however, our clients must exert their best efforts.

While I was interning, a position became available at Fortune’s Better Living Center (BLC), which has provided clients with culturally competent mental health services since 2011. As an Article 31 clinic operated by the New York State Office of Mental Health, BLC helps justice involved individuals, including our Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) clients, to improve their mental recovery and promote their integration into the community. It is the first outpatient mental health treatment clinic in NYC that almost exclusively caters to the reentry population.

I decided to apply for the position because, growing up, I took care of my mother and brother who had histories of mental illness at home. I wanted to use these personal experiences to serve Fortune’s clients professionally.

In 2013, Fortune hired me as an Intake Coordinator for BLC, which means that I am the first person clients see when they come to our clinic. My experience with taking care of people with mental illness has been valuable. Guiding and communicating with clients comes naturally to me, and I have grown close with many of them.

As an Intake Coordinator, I warmly welcome each client on their first day at BLC and complete an intake evaluation with them before assigning their case to a therapist. I may also refer them to outside clinics or programs, higher level care, or internal programs such as Family Services and Employment Services.

In this way, we provide more than mental health services by taking a holistic view of a client’s situation. This is important because the majority of our clients come to BLC feeling discouraged about aspects of their lives that are unrelated to mental health, especially an absence of housing and employment. These obstacles take a toll on their mental health, so BLC works to stabilize their mindsets by addressing all of their needs.

Our clients at BLC face a range of mental and emotional problems that require care. Some have depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to their incarceration. Some also have mental instability due to substance abuse issues or their family histories.

One of the most serious conditions that certain BLC clients have had is trauma from solitary confinement. I have seen the harmful psychological effects that solitary leaves on formerly incarcerated people—one of our clients spent about five years in solitary and arrived with severe mental trauma. Clients who have spent time in solitary are scared, paranoid, and restless. All of the movement occurring within BLC sometimes triggers their fears and we must keep them calm in the waiting room.

Unfortunately, the urgency of the needs of formerly incarcerated individuals with mental illness has been diminished in society through stigmas that restrict access to healthcare, housing, and employment. Before coming to Fortune, some clients were turned away from multiple clinics because of their justice involvement. Fortune becomes home for them because we do not discriminate based on past mistakes. There is a need for more clinics that serve this population.

BLC is an ideal model for mental health clinics because we have a deep understanding of the issues that formerly incarcerated individuals face and how these barriers negatively affect mental health. A combination of acceptance and expertise not only allows our staff to provide direct mental healthcare to clients, but to address their other needs to help rebuild lives.

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