DOING JUSTICE TO MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS

HOW BIG DATA HELPS IDENTIFY UNDERSERVED COMMUNITIES AND CHANGE LIVES

Dawnté Early, the Chief of Research and Evaluation for the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission.

Data tells stories that have the power to transform the mental health system so everyone who needs help receives high-quality, culturally competent care.

That’s what Dawnté Early discovered in her role as the Chief of Research and Evaluation for the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission.

And the team’s very first project yielded a straightforward-but-undeniable tale: Access to mental health care has a significant impact on criminal justice involvement.

Once the team linked massive amounts of mental health data to decades’ worth of criminal justice data from the California Department of Justice, the big picture became clear.

Participation in the state’s Full Service Partnership mental health program led to a 47% overall decline in criminal justice involvement. Participants who had previous high criminal justice involvement had a 69% decline in arrests.

“This is the power of data to tell a story,” Early says. “Simply put, mental health services reduce criminal justice involvement.”

Early explains the importance of the story the state’s treasure trove of data told her team.

Imagine the far-reaching ramifications of this single discovery – that providing mental health services before someone is involved in a crime could not only save them from that fate but also make them healthier, reduce the burden on prison systems and even save lives.

Early and team brought their findings to the state’s county behavioral health directors, who were not just appreciative but truly excited to receive concrete analytical proof that their work serving mental health needs was having an impact.

“I think one of the things we learned from that – and that maybe as researchers and data scientists we sometimes forget – is that data should provide value not only for us, but it should also provide value for those that are actually collecting the data,” Early says.

But they didn’t stop there. To reach beyond even those state-level stakeholders, the team created a transparency suite of data dashboards – easy-to-consume visualizations of the commission’s findings, designed to put information in the hands of anyone trying to create change in community approaches to mental health.

“This is using data to empower people at every level,” Early says. “Sharing data – with our consumers, with our family members, with the public – is one of the most meaningful ways to really start dialogue.”

And focusing on the criminal justice data was just the pilot program. With an entire state’s worth of public-agency data potentially at its disposal, the commission is already undertaking other “data linkage projects” aimed at discovering the hidden stories that can help people get the mental health care they need.

Sharing those stories with the various state agencies – and the communities themselves – lets them answer two important questions: What is happening in this community? And how can we make better use of available resources to reduce risk and support effective care and services?

“What I love about data is its power to lift up the voices of communities that are underserved or unserved,” Early says. “Mental health touches all of us. It touches our families and our friends. We’re constantly seeing individuals who have mental health needs that are not being met. But we can use data to help.”

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