Connie Mele, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC, CARN-AP
2018 Award for Innovation – Individual

Connie MeleConnie Mele has changed thousands of lives: She created a multi-pronged approach to address the mental health and substance use needs of the jail population while reducing the number of individuals with those needs behind bars. Alongside other criminal justice initiatives, this approach has led to measurable results within the county. “Connie found herself witnessing the phenomenon of jail overcrowding and the enlarged ratio of mental health conditions of the inmates,” says Brenda Fore, Connie’s nominator. “[She created] a new path for those with mental health diagnoses [who] interact with the justice system, which has reduced the inmate population by almost half.” For her work to establish this jail diversion program in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, Connie is the 2018 recipient of the APNA Award for Excellence in Innovation – Individual.

At a Glance
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Passion:
Mental health care for incarcerated individuals

Words of Wisdom to Future Nurses:
“Realize that the greatest tool that you bring to your work is yourself and your sense of compassion, care, and support. Know that sometimes we have to have the hope for our clients when they can’t have it for themselves."

How She Makes Every Day Extraordinary:
“I take some time in the morning to just be quiet, center myself, and really listen to my own inner voice. We must never deny what it is calling us to do each and every day."

Connie’s journey to this innovation began while she was providing care to individuals with substance use disorders. “I just had this ‘aha!’ moment that there must be a lot of people in jail with mental health issues, and that’s the worst place they could be,” she says of her motivation. “A lot of the time, people involved in the criminal justice system are viewed as only their crime and not what may have contributed to it.”

Drawing on her expertise as a psychiatric-mental health nurse, she envisioned a community that allowed for collaborative care delivery to support positive outcomes for those with mental health and substance use disorders who would otherwise be incarcerated. “[In jail], we couldn’t be sure that these individuals got the treatment or medication they needed,” she says. “If we could get them into treatment services and meet their social determinants of care, they had a better chance at being able to cope…we needed to figure out a way to keep them out of jail to provide stability and treatment.”

“On any given day, those with mental illness in jail make up between 46% and 71% of the population,” explains Jeanette Avery, one of Connie’s nominators. “Connie worked collaboratively with the sheriff, police chief, district attorney, and public defender for support of a jail diversion program.” After proposing her plan for a program to provide treatment and alternative housing to incarcerated individuals with diagnosed mental health and substance use disorders, Connie worked with these and other community stakeholders to make the program a reality. She even successfully lobbied to use funds originally intended for new jail space for this program instead.

The jail diversion program also incorporates Crisis Intervention Team Training for police and detention officers. “These teams make sure that officers are more equipped to face behavioral health issues and know the resources available for referral,” says Connie. The training helps police and detention officers intervene on behalf of individuals in crisis within the justice system. “[This training] empowers these entities to better understand how different disciplines work – truly a benefit,” says Avery. As Gina Lemons, one of Connie’s nominators, says, “[The Jail Diversion Program’s] proven use of limited resources continues to have a positive impact on our community.”

The results of this program speak for themselves: Mecklenberg County saw a 50% reduction in the number of individuals in jail since 2008 upon implementation. “While not all the reduction can be tied to this program because other criminal justice initiatives were implemented during this time, the community feels this program has had a significant impact on this population. This new melded psychiatric-mental health nursing care incorporates housing, occupation, medication, therapy, and long-term goal setting,” says Fore. “The future opportunities from this project may feed the nation with alternatives for tomorrow’s justice system, which will not only save money but change the lives of those it touches.”

Connie retired as the Assistant Health Director of Mecklenberg County in July 2018 to open a consulting and private practice business, but her work with the jail diversion program continues to make a difference for incarcerated individuals with mental health and substance use disorders. We look forward to celebrating her innovation at the APNA 32nd Annual Conference in Columbus, Ohio on October 24-27.

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The American Psychiatric Nurses Association is accredited with distinction as a provider of continuing nursing education by the American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation.