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Natalie Bonfine, Ph.D.

Applying the Sociology of Mental Health: Natalie Bonfine

Just one person has worked in all three Centers of Excellence in Northeast Ohio Medical University’s Department of Psychiatry: Natalie Bonfine, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry. That fact is significant, because it demonstrates Dr. Bonfine’s ability to nimbly work across disciplines, whether through the Best Practices in Schizophrenia Treatment (BeST) Center; the Ohio Criminal Justice Coordinating Center of Excellence (CJ CCoE); the Ohio Program for Campus Safety and Mental Health – or external organizations.

From the beginning of her career, Dr. Bonfine has specialized in the sociology of mental health and illness. For her distinguished achievements, Dr. Bonfine was recently named as one of two NEOMED 2018 Junior Faculty Award recipients.

A sociologist at work

Dr. Bonfine’s work focuses on a serious problem: the overrepresentation of people who have mental illness within the justice system. She learned that people who have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder are about three times more likely to end up in jail compared to anyone else in the general population.

“Once people with serious mental illness are the justice system, they usually stay there longer than anyone else,” says Dr. Bonfine, explaining the complex intersection of mental illness, criminalness and structural forces, like poverty, that can place people at a disadvantage. (In an article called Taking Control of Stinkin’ Thinkin’ Dr. Bonfine discussed the topic in the Spring 2019 issue of Ignite magazine.)

Connecting communities

The researcher looks for ways that the criminal justice system and community mental health system can connect with and talk to one another. She works closely with the Ohio Criminal Justice Coordinating Center of Excellence (CJ CCoE) to study the effects of community-based efforts to divert people with mental illness from the justice system, when appropriate. “I’m very curious about why people with mental illness are getting stuck in the justice system, but more importantly, about what systems and various stakeholders can do about this.”

Looking at the state of student mental health

Dr. Bonfine is also working alongside Rebecca Fischbein, Ph.D., a NEOMED assistant professor of family and community medicine, on a project that looks at the prevalence of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, among a national sample of medicine and pharmacy students. This summer, the pair plans to add two M1 students from NEOMED’s Summer Research Fellowship Program to their team.

Here at NEOMED, another topic on Dr. Bonfine’s mind is the Healthy Minds Study, which was developed at the University of Michigan to study mental health and use of mental health services by undergraduate and graduate students. NEOMED students participated last year, along with students across the U.S. Dr. Bonfine is interested in those results and will be following the next survey, which NEOMED students will be invited to take next fall.

Going international

This summer, Dr. Bonfine plans to take her research on the road. In July, she, Christian Ritter, Ph.D. and Julie Aultman, Ph.D., will travel to Rome for the 36th International Congress on Law and Mental Health, at which they will share their expertise on data and information sharing across systems of care to address mental health and the opioid crisis.

Whether it’s across the ocean or on campus at NEOMED, mental health will always be at the top of Dr. Bonfine’s list.