News and Notes

A Newsletter for Faculty and Staff of Idaho State University

November 8, 2010 — Vol. 26 No. 38

ISU Professor Earns Grant to Study Mental Health in Jail

Shannon Lynch

Assessing serious mental illness of women in jail and exploring women's pathways to jail are two major components of a study being conducting by Shannon Lynch, Idaho State University associate professor and chair of the ISU psychology department.

"We want to study their pathways to jail to try to find turning points in their life that led to their committing crimes, and find better ways to offer rehabilitation to women prisoners and potential prisoners," Lynch said.

Lynch is the principal investigator on a new $499,000 multi-site grant to Idaho State University titled "Women's Pathways to Jail: Roles and Intersection of Serious Mental Illness and Trauma" from the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Affairs. She will collaborate with co-investigators Dana DeHart at the University of South Carolina, Joanne Belknap at the University of Colorado a Boulder and Bonne Green at Georgetown University.

"The number of women in jail with mental illness is high," Lynch said. "Studies suggest from one-quarter to one-third of women in correctional facilities have a serious mental illness. Women in jail have also experienced much higher incidences of violence from people in their lives, from caregivers to partners."

"Women are more likely," continued Lynch, "to have been using drugs when committing a crime and a lot of times they have experienced severe interpersonal violence prior to that."

The number of women being incarcerated in jails in prisons is on the rise overall, and particularly for drug-related offenses. Self-medication to deal with mental illness and traumas could be a major factor in women prisoners' drug convictions.

The researchers will work with 400 to 500 women jail prisoners in four regions of the United States, including 80 to 100 women in jails in Southeast Idaho. They will assess the prevalence of serious mental illness such as major depressive disorders and psychotic or delusion disorders in this population, and try to determine the level of impairment these disorders cause in the women. They'll study the extent seriously mentally ill prisoners in jail have access to treatment prior to incarceration and the quality of that treatment.

Additionally, the researchers will examine and explore the pathways such as trauma exposure and substance use to incarceration for women in jail, and compare pathways of female offenders with and without serious mental illness.

Thirty women in each of the four identified regions will be invited to participate in follow-up interviews to provide a more in-depth perspective on their pathways to jail. Corrections staff members at each site will also be invited to assess their perceptions of women's pathways to jail, mental health concerns and staff training needs.