Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - February 14, 2014

Catching mental illness early

Programs in schools, outpatient services can help prevent crisis, officials say

by Sue Dremann

Santa Clara County's mental health services are not just for adults. Increasingly, mental health advocates are citing the paramount importance of early-intervention programs, which reach people at the beginning stages of their illnesses when they have the best chance of accepting treatment.

Palo Alto City Councilwoman Gail Price is a member of the county's Mental Health Board, and she supports programs directed at youth.

For those young adults aged 17 to 25, recognizing and accepting mental illness can be challenging, Price said.

"Because of the normal swings of behavior that are typical for that age group, parents may not be able to see that it is an illness," she said. "At 17 to 25, that's precisely when they want and need to be more independent. There is a lot of social pressure in college, a lot of drinking. There are a lot of contradictory pressures. It really is hard."

Initial psychotic breaks due to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often occur during these transition years. Suddenly parents not only have a child who is severely ill, but that child is now an adult by law, and the family has no control over that person, she said.

That is why early recognition of the signs of potential mental illness and intervention is so important.

"Having more compassionate, client-based care with the family involved will make a huge difference for psychiatric emergencies and crises," she said.

Emergency psychiatric services are not always available when there is a crisis. Price said she has seen this scenario played out numerous times for families.

"The thing about mental health crises is that no one is prepared. No one thinks it will happen to them, but most families are touched by mental illness. Many are not aware of the resources. You are not prepared to be in an emergency room and have a member of your family be hauled off in an ambulance to another community, and that's just the beginning. Then you begin the trek of trying to find psychiatric services," she said.

Former Palo Alto Mayor Vic Ojakian, another member of the county's Mental Health Board, said that the discussion about mental health treatment is complex, which makes treatment difficult.

Ojakian's son, Adam, died by suicide while in college.

"I think my son was a special human being dealing with a condition he was not trained to understand and had no way to determine what help he needed and was available.

"He was living in an environment that was/is not very conducive to getting mental health treatment. There was/is too much stigma about mental health conditions for him and others to want to seek help.

"Until we have a better understanding of mental health conditions, a more favorable environment to accommodate individuals with a mental health condition and better treatments, we will limp along in how individuals with mental health conditions are viewed and treated," he said.

To serve children with burgeoning mental illness, the county runs many targeted programs. Its School Linked Services initiative brings social, medical and mental health services to the schools for early intervention where there is the highest risk of mental illness, according to Dr. Nancy Pena, director of Santa Clara County Mental Health Department.

The county is about to open a children's crisis stabilization program, through a well-established children's mental health provider in the county, EMQ FamiliesFirst. The service will offer 24-hour crisis intervention, to complement their existing Mobile Crisis and Intensive Transitions follow-up program. The new service will be available to children and families countywide and will be located in Campbell.

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