May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to recognize the importance of diagnosis and treatment for the complex range of mental conditions affecting millions of people globally. Though the growing discussion surrounding mental health is vital, more conversation is needed regarding mental health and individuals with justice involvement specifically. The Fortune Society’s Better Living Center is New York’s only State Office of Mental Health-licensed clinic uniquely designed to treat this underserved population. Led by Clinic Director Jessica Glass, the program helps participants bridge gaps between troubled pasts and behavior that may have led to their incarceration. It also aids them in healing from an unjust punitive system that often heightens unhealthy responses to stressful situations.
To do this important work, Jessica and her team start from a nuanced understanding of trauma, which widens their participants’ perspectives of the term. “I don’t think that the trauma is recognized,” she notes. Trauma can stem from a lack of education, basic nutrition, proper parenting—and early exposure to violence.
Through the Better Living Center’s in-depth programs, participants learn to recognize what aspects of their past may have impaired their present ability to thrive. An individual’s anxiety when waiting in line to receive food, for instance, may stem from past trauma associated with food scarcity. “Not having access to things that other people have an access to—it [could cause] a trigger response…,” Jessica notes.
Without patience and understanding to explore these connections, the community at-large and the justice system that is supposed to protect them often rush to judgement. Current approaches in the field of mental health follow a similar vein. As Jessica mentions, common resources aimed at helping individuals find successful paths with mental health needs use abrasive language that isn’t conducive to successful reentry.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy is very popular in the field, but the definition of it is ‘thinking errors.’ When people ask [if Fortune does that,] I don’t like to say ‘yes’ because it involves a thinking error. So, I say that we used modified cognitive therapy.”
Words matter—and Jessica and her team are sensitive to what individuals with justice involvement have used as methods of self-preservation. Rather than label them as “errors,” she focuses on alternative behavioral approaches that do not lead to further police interactions.
BLC prioritizes positivity, opening participants up to creative relaxation and deep breathing techniques so, as Jessica, states, “they can still feel safe, get what they need, and not have a reaction where somebody sitting and watching [them panics]…”
Jessica’s many years of experience working with our unique population has prepared her for the complexity of daily participant needs. But other professionals in her field are not always open to seeing individuals with justice involvement as worthy of care. In fact, she notes “a lot of social workers, especially social workers [who are just beginning in the field], think that only people that are victims of crimes are the ones that should be seen.”
But, as Fortune has known for over 50 years, true justice involves care and rehabilitation on both sides. Everyone, regardless of their past, deserves an opportunity to learn, transform, and find hope.
Jessica even recalls an incident with an individual who was found innocent of a crime, only later to be turned away from a mental health clinic due to false perceptions surrounding individuals with justice involvement. It took months to get the individual the support they needed. Unfortunately, many more clinics are still irrationally uncomfortable, leaving individuals with justice involvement compelled to not share aspects of their past. “They just leave out their incarceration and say that they’re depressed, and they just don’t say why. Or they wait until the person is comfortable with them…it’s like they’re the therapists.”
Looking ahead, Jessica hopes for more resources for social workers and other mental health professionals that emphasize hope rather than false stereotypes. “Educating people in the work field about what it means to work with individuals [who have incarceration histories] is, like, on the top of the list for me,” she says. And she aims to expand Fortune’s own capacity to serve a greater number of people struggling with both incarceration histories and mental health needs. Her goals are aligned with the essential aim of direct impact work: That no one who needs help should be ignored.
*Article by Root Stitches LLC