New grant funding aims to improve outcomes for those with serious mental illness (SMI) by tracking their paths through criminal justice and healthcare systems.
Monday, March 25, 2024

Under a new grant from the Nellie Ball Trust Research Fund, the Law, Health Policy & Disability Center (LHPDC) will work with a local agency to illustrate the challenges facing individuals with mental health disorders. 

People with serious mental illness (SMI) are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, often because there is nowhere else to place people who may be a danger to themselves or others, says Angie Pretz, PhD, MSW, a research scientist who received the $31,000 one-year grant from the Nellie Ball Trust Research Fund. Pretz’s grant submission is titled “Criminalizing Mental Health: The intersection of Serious Mental Illness and the Criminal Legal System.” 

“I read about a client who had SMI and he was in jail, even though he didn’t really belong there, because he was waiting for a (psychiatric) bed to open up,” Pretz says. “When a bed finally did open up, he was there for only three days before the facility said his SMI was too serious for them to deal with, so he was sent back to jail because there was no other place for him.” 

Pretz will work with Successful Living in Iowa City, which offers a combination of residential and outpatient psychiatric programs. Joseph Massa, PhD, director of programs and human resources at Successful Living, says access issues for mental health services are at a crisis point in Iowa and nationwide. 

“We have a finite number of available bedrooms in our housing program and a very large waitlist, which grows each day. We also have a high demand in our outreach program for intermittent supported community living, so we see this every day,” Massa says. “Many of our clients need to see a psychiatrist of therapist and there either isn’t the funding or there aren’t the people to provide that service.” 

Many of Successful Living’s clients are referred through the criminal justice system, Massa says. The program has a high success rate “because we can make sure our people get to their appointments, take their medications, and so on. But the waitlist and the referral list are enormous.” 

Pretz and Massa will examine the treatment and jail records of some Successful Living clients to detail their journeys through the criminal justice and mental health systems. They hope to draw a representative picture of the circumstances and barriers facing people with mental health disorders.  

“We need to show legislators and policymakers what’s happening to people who need these facilities and services,” Pretz says. “We’re hoping to get an intro-level snapshot that we can use as the basis for more research and more discussion with policymakers about what’s needed to address the huge gap in services.” 

About the Nellie Ball Research Fund 

The Nellie Ball Trust Research Fund administers grant funding to stimulate research in the areas of paranoia, schizophrenia, and legal issues affecting individuals with mental disabilities. The Trust has provided funding for several legal and medical research projects since it was established in 1977. 

About the LHPDC 

LHPDC is one of many centers and institutes connected to the College of Law. The centers and institutes at Iowa Law do important work across subject matters. They collaborate with faculty across the university and provide students with rich opportunities for education, service, and scholarship through research assistantships. LHPDC conducts research in the areas of law, health, and disability and is the independent evaluator of disability services for the Polk County MDHS Region.