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FIT Wellness receives grant to help formerly incarcerated people

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The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Dorothea Dix campus, located in Raleigh, is pictured on Aug. 26, 2022.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced on Feb. 12 that it would be investing $5.5 million into the FIT Wellness program, which is part of the N.C. Formerly Incarcerated Transition Program in the UNC School of Medicine.

FIT Wellness offers continued psychiatric and physical health care for patients with a serious mental illness who are being released from state prison. According to an NCDHHS press release, serious mental illness affects 15 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails, and 85 percent of the prison population has a substance use disorder or was incarcerated for a crime related to substance use.

The program also provides clients with community support by offering resources to locate housing, transportation services and phones.

Since the program welcomed its first patient in August 2022 in Wake County, FIT Wellness has accepted participants with referrals from across North Carolina, representing 30 percent of state prisons.

Dr. Ted Zarzar, a co-founder of N.C. FIT Wellness and associate professor of psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine, said the NCDHHS originally funded the program as a two-year pilot program, but its success has allowed for further expansion to Orange, Durham and New Hanover counties.

“We're trying to reduce emergency room and inpatient visits, but we're also trying to prevent people from getting arrested again,” Zarzar said. “And when you look at why people with mental illness get arrested, part of it is not having the community mental health treatment, but just doing that by itself is not sufficient."

Dr. Evan Ashkin, another co-founder of the program, said the funding from NCDHHS is an important opportunity for them to sustain the work in Wake County and expand the services so that they can more meaningfully address patients’ social needs.

“It is much more cost-effective to get people the treatment they need and the other services so that they can be safe and housed and not wind up cycling through emergency rooms, hospitals and the carceral system, which is very expensive,” Ashkin said.

According to the NCDHHS press release, 75 percent of FIT Wellness participants had no emergency department visit within three months of release, and 81 percent had no hospital visit with the right behavioral health care and connections to community support systems to meet their needs.

Ashkin also said the program hires people who are all formerly incarcerated and then trains them as community health workers. He said their role is to meet people upon release and create comprehensive reentry plans that try to address concerns such as housing, employment and transportation. 

Shawn Tyrone Baker, community health worker for FIT Wellness was incarcerated for 15 years before working for the program. He said there are many preconceived notions about formerly incarcerated individuals that hinder their opportunities to get help.

Baker said his tasks as a community health worker include wellness checks and getting clients energized about planning their goals.

“Our program is not only just structured, but it’s filled with love,” he said. “We love on our clients until they actually start loving themselves.”

Natasha Taylor, a client at FIT Wellness since November 2023, said that the program has given her more time to do more meaningful things in her life like learning how to be an audio engineer.

"When I finally got connected with N.C. FIT, I got put in with a psychiatrist and a doctor and the advocate and everything," Taylor said. "It changed my whole perspective."

Anthony Ferrera, another client at FIT Wellness, said he learned about the program while he was still in prison.

“I had to take some initiative, and it wasn't easy, but they made it absolutely a reachable goal,” Ferrera said. “They ultimately changed my life to the full extent of its power today.”

Ferrera also said that, since being out of prison and a client at FIT Wellness, he lives with his daughter and has a great relationship with his family.

“I give everything that I have today to them,” he said. “Because without them I would have never started the path.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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