COVID 19: A Neuroscience Perspective

What are the effects on those already dealing with incarceration and mental health issues? 

A Conversation with Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, PhD
 Associate Professor of the Practice in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

Please tell us a bit about your research area.

I do community-engaged research, working with Durham’s Stepping Up Initiative, Crisis Intervention Team, and Criminal Justice Resource Center.  These groups are particularly interested in improving outcomes for people in Durham who are involved with the criminal justice system and also have mental health issues.  My team of collaborators and students has been analyzing data describing incarcerations and recidivism in this population.  We are also beginning to examine the interactions of this population with Duke Health System, to explore ways that we can improve coordination.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing unique challenges for people with mental illness who are involved with the criminal justice system.  Can you explain those challenges?  What is Durham County doing to assist in this difficult time?

One concern is that people in communal-living situations, such as jails or halfway houses, are at higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, since they are less able to do social distancing.  Durham County had already been working to reduce our jail population over the past year, and has continued to release non-violent offenders during the pandemic.  For those non-violent offenders who have been released, the Durham’s Local Re-entry Council is working hard to ensure that those released from the jail have the housing and services they need to remain safe and healthy during this time, including access to mental health care and medications as needed. 

Another concern is those in the community with mental illness who might experience extreme stress during this time.  Durham has hundreds of first responders (police, sheriff, Emergency Medical Services & fire personnel) who are trained to respond to mental health crises.  People who need crisis support are encouraged to call 9-1-1.  Officers will handle calls by phone if needed for social distancing.  If commitment to a mental health facility is needed, officers can still assist with the court order.  Counselors are evaluating those arrested for their ability to  stand  trial, via telehealth.  Durham County’s community paramedics continue their work of checking on patients with mental illness and encouraging them to get additional help if needed. 

Do you have any other advice for individuals with mental illness and their families, whether in the community or incarcerated?

Know that these stressful times are even more so for those with mental illness, and especially their caregivers.  If you are in need of help, do not hesitate to reach out.  Ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)-trained officer if you need to call 9-1-1.  CIT officers are specially trained to recognize episodes of mental health crisis and to use gentle interaction techniques to bring a stressful situation to a calm resolution.  If a loved one is incarcerated, DO continue to stay connected with them through video calls and phone calls.  Use the telehealth options for mental health services whenever possible, and keep up with medication refills. 

Are there are other resources during the pandemic that would be helpful?

Yes, NAMI Durham has many resources for patients and family members of those with mental illness:

NAMI HELP Line 800-950-HELP (6264)

In a crisis text NAMI to 741741

Information Line  919-231-5016