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RESEARCH WEEKLY: Social Support Among People With Mental Illness on Probation

RESEARCH WEEKLY: Social Support Among People With Mental Illness on Probation 


By Kaitlyn Pederson


Social isolation can have a damaging effect on anyone’s wellbeing, especially for people with chronic illnesses such as severe mental illness. This effect is exacerbated when social isolation is experienced by justice-involved people with mental illness, resulting in a greater number of probation violations and an increased risk for future offending. The level of social support an individual experiences while on probation can also significantly affect the mental health symptoms of individuals with serious mental illness, according to new research in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal.


Positive effects on mental health have been found among justice-involved juveniles and adults that are surrounded by a strong social network. Many justice-involved individuals, however, have small social networks and can experience negative outcomes, including more severe mental health symptoms.


Study Details 


A recent study published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal examined the relationship between social support and mental health. The researchers conducted interviews and assessments with 204 probationers with serious mental illness. The study defines a serious mental illness as a diagnosis of either psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, all participants were high-risk, meaning they were highly likely to re-offend in the future. Risk was assigned to each individual based on the state probation agency’s recidivism risk classification system.


Participants were then assessed on their level of social support using a questionnaire called the Functional Social Support Questionnaire (FSSQ). The FSSQ is a seven-question survey with higher scores representing greater social support. Participants are then separated into a high social support group or a low social support group depending on their questionnaire score.




Individuals with lower social supports scored higher on a questionnaire measuring psychological distress. Therefore, individuals with low social support showed greater mental health symptoms than the high social support group.


Also, low social support individuals had poorer relationships with their probation officers. The probation officer-probationer relationship was measured using a questionnaire on how a person feels about his or her probation officer. Individuals who had higher social support indicated a better relationship with their probation officer compared to individuals with low social support.


The study also found that a person’s psychological distress and their level of social support have a negative relationship. This means that the more social support one has, the more improved their mental health symptoms are going to be.


Furthermore, the probation officer-probationer relationship and level of social support are positively related, according to the results, meaning that as one’s relationship with their probation officer improves, mental health symptoms will also improve.




Justice-involved individuals with serious mental illness face numerous difficult barriers while on probation, including isolation. Lack of social support leads to an increased risk for probation violations, future offending, and worsening psychological distress. Probation agencies and probation officers should assess the level of support for all justice-involved individuals with serious mental illness and an effort should be made by criminal justice actors to establish connections, a good probation officer-probationer relationship, and develop a good social support community for their clients, the results suggest.
Generating social support for individuals living with a serious mental illness while on probation can help improve their mental health symptoms and also reduce their likelihood for probation violations and future offending.


Kaitlyn Pederson is guest Research Weekly author and PhD student in Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
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