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MHA award recipient discusses why the mental health and criminal justice systems should work hand in hand

Kate Mahoney, LCSW, was honored with the George Goodman and Ruth P. Brudney Social Work Award from Mental Health America (MHA) at their annual conference on June 14 in Washington D.C.

In the Q&A interview below, Mahoney shares her thoughts on why mental health care education is so important for the criminal justice system, her reaction to being nominated, and why the NRCI and TCSPP have been so imperative in her career.


INSIGHT Magazine: Congratulations on your MHA award this year. Did anything in particular stand out at this year’s event?

Mahoney: It was a huge honor to be among a really phenomenal group of people at the award ceremony. The conference theme this year fit really well for me. It was sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. I presented a workshop at the conference on Thelonious Monk, and his struggles with substance issues and mental illness. That was very well received. I co-presented with my nephew, a jazz historian named Mark Mahoney. Thelonius Monk would have been 100 years old this year.

His struggles particularly with mental illness were often criminalized. Because he was a musician and African-American, discrimination was a huge factor for him. He was arrested a couple of times for things that someone from a different cultural group probably would not have been arrested for without regard for his mental illness and need for treatment. Being arrested caused Monk’s cabaret card to be revoked, even without a conviction. A cabaret card was required in order to perform in any club in New York that served alcohol. Pretty much every jazz club serves alcohol. So when that happened, he’d be unable to perform. This was a triple loss to Monk: He thrived on playing music, his family was dependent upon his income, and the community at large was robbed of the opportunity to experience his genius.


INSIGHT: It’s interesting that you brought up the connection between mental illnesses and the criminal justice system, a topic explored in the latest issue of INSIGHT magazine. There sometimes seems to be a troubling pattern of prisons turning into mental health facilities while mental health facilities are being shut down.

Mahoney: Yes, and our jail and prison systems are not set up to treat mental illness. However, they house large numbers of people who have mental health and substance abuse disorders. So they just end up exacerbating the problem. I don’t think most people would really understand how loud it is when you’re in a jail or a prison all the time. Incarceration and solitary confinement just make things worse for someone who already struggles with a mental illness.


INSIGHT: Your undergraduate degree is in sociology and women’s studies. What interested you in these subjects overall?

Mahoney: In many ways it aligns with why I love working for the Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute (NRCI). We’re looking at individuals and groups that have experienced discrimination and not had equal access. Sociology helped me understand how groups and cultures work, so that prepped me for some of the work with NRCI to focus on people of color and the extra stigma they sometimes experience with mental illness. Women’s Studies is now called Gender Studies and tries to help women become treated more equally in our culture. Reducing stigma way back when I was in undergrad was an interest of mine and it remains so, which is why working for NRCI is such a perfect fit for me.


INSIGHT: I’m assuming the same interests apply for what made you go into the social work profession 34 years ago. Is there anything in particular that surprised you about working within the social work industry when you first started versus now?

Mahoney: I worked largely with individuals who struggled with heroin and other opioid dependencies, who were, again, a very highly stigmatized population. Many of whom, instead of getting treatment, were cast aside to the criminal justice system. These people were struggling and needed help as opposed to the way our culture has often treated people, which is to criminalize their mental health issues.        


INSIGHT: Reducing stigma is clearly a topic that you feel strongly about. Can you tell me about the professional workshop you designed and delivered, “Ethical Issues in Clinical Practice: A Case Study Approach”? How did that come about and what were the results? 

Mahoney: I’ve delivered that a couple of different times, including in September at the Vet Center in Evanston. It came about initially as a way to help licensed professional counselors and licensed social workers fulfill a professional education requirement to renew their licenses. They need at least three hours of cultural competence training and three hours of ethics training. With the intentions of better serving the field, I’ve developed workshops for each of those topics to help people with their renewals. Also, I wanted to provide a meaningful experience in which seasoned clinicians get to talk about cases and approaches to ethics in our field and to practice what it means to be a culturally competent practitioner. This workshop was a way to connect with other practitioners, help us continue to build our skills, and to help people with a licensure requirement. NRCI will be sponsoring these trainings again on TCSPP’s Chicago Campus on Friday, November 3, 2017.


INSIGHT: What made you decide to pursue the Executive Director role of the Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute? 

Mahoney: The biggest thing is my incredible admiration for Larry and Marilyn Cohen. I had been involved with their annual conference serving on the planning committee for about a decade. I was amazed at what they’ve accomplished and the unique nature of the conference that they put on, which brings together not only professionals but people with lived experiences, family members, and community members. I’ve spent more than 30 years working more in direct practice, and I wanted to be able to elevate the conversation to that next level to start trying to make some real inroads into reducing stigma and increasing access to care. It was the perfect opportunity for me.


INSIGHT: Aspiring mental health professionals could certainly learn a lot from you. But for both the general public and students entering into TCSPP, what do you feel is one of the most significant lessons that they should know?

Mahoney: One of my biggest issues is that we interchange the terms “mental health” and “mental illness.” When we talk about mental health, many people are really thinking about mental illness. And we don’t think about either of those as health issues. We think about them way too often either in terms of lack of willpower, not trying hard, or some spiritual loss. As Dr. Nealon has been quoted, “We can’t have health without mental health.” For example, if someone visits a cardiologist for a heart condition, people will look at that as part of their health even though they may be seeing a specialist. But when you visit a mental health practitioner, people don’t always see that as a health issue. And when we don’t understand mental health as a health issue, then sometimes people don’t get the help that they need or deserve. To me, that’s a travesty.

In addition to why I came to NRCI, what I love about working at The Chicago School is being around so many people who are dedicated to best practices in doing this work. It’s such a stimulating environment to be around people who are dedicated to developing the future leaders in the field of mental health and who are really committed to ongoing learning. I just came here in January, and it’s been a dynamic experience since the day I started.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Shamontiel L. Vaughn joined TCS Education System’s Marketing Department as the Editorial Writer in February 2017. She has previously worked in digital media with the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender, CBS Chicago, and Sun Times Network.


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