During the summer of 2021 the Mental Health Unit counted on the support of Zola Neal (She/Her/Hers)
Within The Department of Community Justice (DCJ), various teams work to create a safe community through positive change. The Mental Health Unit (MHU) has played a vital role in the mission and vision that the department embodies. They have done this by providing supervision services for parole, probation, and post-prison individuals who have been diagnosed with a Severe and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI).
This summer, MHU has counted on the support of a College to County Intern, Zola Neal (She/Her/Hers). Neal grew up on the east coast with her family. She eventually moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, and is attending Portland State University (PSU). Alongside being a full-time student and interning at Multnomah County, she has also worked for Volunteers of America for the past seven years.
Zola Neal has life experience attending to those with mental health challenges. Throughout her childhood, she took care of an elderly man who suffered from mental illness. She witnessed the man digress as his symptoms got progressively worse. “The thing about mental illness is that if it’s sometimes not treated correctly, it can seriously impact a person’s life,” says Neal. However, Neal adds that, “if they get the right treatment and the right services, then you can really see someone hold a positive and healthy life.”
Working alongside the MHU team - which consists of 11 staff, 8 clinicians, and 1 prescriber of medications - Neal has received various projects including research around trauma-informed care and the treatment gap of SPMI. She is also taking an active role in helping MHU develop the outreach program they launched in May 2021. Neal wanted to gain experience working directly with justice involved clients and individuals with complex needs.
These projects have provided her with new experiences and allowed her to test the waters in new areas. Neal states, “I didn’t even realize I loved outreach work...because it’s a quick face-to-face contact that you have with someone” while providing a basic human need that everyone deserves.
To Neal, the outreach van has been a meaningful and important project because it shows that the county is present in the community to provide people with essential supplies. These supplies include blankets, hand sanitizer, sleeping bags, gloves, tents, hydration, and hygiene kits for people to take — even the opioid reversal drug Narcan. Alongside these supplies, they also provide storage for goods, and two charging stations. The outreach van is a sign that outreach work is incredibly vital to meeting people in their communities.
Neal mentions how COVID-19 has increased the number of virtual meetings and drastically changed the community. She goes on to say, “COVID-19 has definitely hindered how people can connect to these social services and with treatment.” Especially with supervision, as pandemic restrictions limited PPOs outreach and house visits to justice-involved individuals (JIIs) in the community. In addition to COVID-19 related restrictions which limited gatherings and visits, MHU has also seen a spike in homelessness which has impacted many.
John McVay, MHU Manager, stated in July’s Multnomah County News story that, “sixty percent of clients were experiencing homelessness or not in residence — a significant surge since 2017 when numbers were at around 25 percent.”
This spike highlights the importance of the MHU outreach van. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting loss of community and shutdown induced isolation, people experiencing SPMI were heavily impacted. However, the MHU team has worked to lessen the effects of isolation during these challenging times. The van has provided an opportunity for JIIs to check in with their PO or the POs. This allows for POs to communicate internally to inform the office that individuals are okay.
Neal mentions how her internship experience overall has been great. This experience has reaffirmed her choice to be part of the criminal justice system and eventually go to law school. For her, it has been inspirational to see the entire system work for the good of the clients. It shows that the work we do does indeed matter, and we are all working to create a safer community through positive change.
Like any other position, there are days where she feels overwhelmed with information, but for the majority of the experience, she feels motivated to change the world. Neal would love to work for the county. She is happy to be a part of this experience and having the privilege of getting a glimpse into the fantastic work of the PPOs.
or contact College to County Program Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org
Authored by: Kenyn Davila-Samayoa - 2021 Workforce Equity and Communications Intern.