Two USC faculty members Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work received the prestigious Fulbright Specialist Program award from the United States Department of State for continuing their research internationally. Clinical Professor Emeritus Anne Katz and Clinical Associate Professor Jennifer Lewis are among a very small number of USC professors awarded in 2020 and 2021 (with awards from 2020 postponed due to COVID-19). USC is part only 17 universities the most productive Fulbright institutions.
Both professors focus on delivering programs that tackle contemporary issues of underserved populations in innovative ways.
Katz will work with the Oxford Institute of Population Aging in England to expand the research she has conducted in the United States and Canada on aging inmates in prison, especially women. She will be giving a series of masterclasses at Oxford which will be open to the public and promote a better understanding of what aging is and its impact on prison life at individual and institutional levels. She will also study the prison system in England to better understand how their aging policies and programs differ from those in the United States.
Lewis will continue his transdisciplinary, community-based approach to suicide prevention by restricting access to lethal means. She is the co-author of “Organizing for Suicide Prevention: A Case Study at the Golden Gate Bridge,” which describes a methodology for enabling community organizers across the country to replicate suicide prevention techniques in locations frequently used for suicide. in their communities. Lewis will study the impact of social, political and economic models of other countries and cultures on this methodology. She is evaluating several international suicide bridges as potential locations for her Fulbright research, including the Foyle Bridge in Derry, Northern Ireland in collaboration with Queen’s University in Belfast.
“I am very happy that Professor Katz and Professor Lewis represent the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work,” said Sarah Gehlert, Dean and Ernest P. Larson Professor of Health, Ethnicity and Poverty. “This is a great opportunity for them to share their new research with an international audience and to gain new knowledge from our colleagues in other countries. ”
From a public health perspective, prisons are microcosms of the outside world and face the same aging problems, but exacerbated and accelerated by prison conditions. Aging men and women are the fastest growing population in American prisons, with a study projecting that by 2030, elderly inmates will represent one-third of American inmates. The exponential increase in the number of elderly prisoners creates new and costly challenges for the criminal justice system. There is little or no accommodation for aging in the current prison system, from accessibility for wheelchairs and other assistive devices to the simple challenge of getting on a top bunk.
“Everything that happens in the outside world also happens in prisons,” Katz said. “Most people never really think about how inmates deal with the issues we all face as we age and what that means for our prison system in the United States.”
Much of Katz’s work has focused on aging inmates, who have different social and psychological needs than male inmates. About 90% of women behind bars for killing men have been physically assaulted by their victims according to an advocacy group. Inmates suffer extensively from trauma, often caused by domestic violence as well as depression and drug addiction. Research has found that about 80% of inmates met criteria for one or more lifelong psychiatric disorders and up to 70% were symptomatic. Conditions of detention, such as solitary confinement, institutional dependence and loss of identity, exacerbate these conditions and can make these elderly women prisoners even more prone to abuse and predation.
Katz’s Fulbright research will help address the need for a multidisciplinary approach to the complex health and social needs of aging people in the criminal justice system and support a better understanding of how to apply both the novel approaches and the models. current to these problems. .
Lewis’s research focuses on the other side of the lifespan spectrum: lives cut short by suicide. Suicide is currently responsible for nearly one million deaths per year worldwide and is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States and second among 16-24 year olds. Although the National Institutes of Health is spending about $ 239 million on suicide research and suicide prevention in 2021, suicide rates have increased by 33% over the past 20 years According to the CDC.
In 2019, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, but very few people actually tried to follow through. For this reason, a promising suicide prevention strategy may restrict access to lethal means in addition to individual mental health interventions.
“The experience of suicidal ideation can be chronic, but acting on these thoughts is usually fleeting,” Lewis said. “A barrier can be a simple suicide prevention technique, but it interrupts the temporary impulse to act.”
Lewis’s work takes a transdisciplinary approach to suicide prevention using a framework of community organization and human-centered design. She worked with Paul Muller, executive director of the Bridge Rail Foundation at the Golden Gate Bridge, to create a methodology for community organizers across the country to implement changes around suicide hot spots in their own communities. Lewis implemented this methodology herself, using it to help organize stakeholders in her own community with a prevention system at the Coronado-San Diego Bridge.
“This project brings together unusual collaborators: local neighborhood and community organizers, mental health advocates, transportation authorities and government bureaucrats,” Lewis said. “It changed everything we thought we knew about suicide prevention. Most importantly, it puts the tools to create change in everyone’s hands.
Lewis plans to use his Fulbright experience to explore how these restricted access methods could be applied in other countries, and with the aim of improving global suicide prevention strategies.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; the Trans lifeline at 1-877-565-8860; or The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. Text “Start” on the Crisis text line at 741-741.