Starting this month, teens and young adults across Santa Clara County now have a place online to vent, hang out with peers and find new ways to cope with depression and anxiety — all without having to leave home.
The program, dubbed Virtual You, kicked off as an alternative way to bring mental health services to youth ages 12 to 25 during a global pandemic, which has forced clinics to close and transition to telehealth. Virtual You was launched in lieu of in-person services at two new mental health clinics, one located in Palo Alto, which are now slated to open early next year.
Local and national studies have consistently found that about 1 in 5 children have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral health disorder, but few of those children ever receive services from a mental health professional — allowing the disorders to get worse over time. County officials are seeking to intervene earlier through walk-in clinics that accept patients at no cost. The program, called Allcove, was expected to open its doors in May, but was delayed by the pandemic, slow permitting and pending construction.
Virtual You is the workaround, and is the first online-only incarnation of Allcove. It is described as a one-stop shop for teens to learn coping skills and seek help for anxiety, stress and depression. It also has a less clinical, social component, giving teens a chance to connect for art groups, game nights and a "venting and sharing" group. Teens will also have a chance to work through school stress related to COVID-19, and can get help with resumes and job hunting during a pandemic.
Allcove has been one of the county's most ambitious attempts at filling gaps in youth mental health care, which has been a priority for years. Early detection and diagnosis can keep disorders from worsening and is a key factor in suicide prevention.
"Time after time, the saddest part of the story is that a kid didn't reach out earlier, didn't have the opportunity to get help when they really needed it," Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said in a statement. "The appeal of programs like Virtual You is that they're designed to engage youngsters who are struggling long before they hit a crisis point."
Anyone interested in signing up for Virtual You can call 408-961-4700 or send an email to [email protected]
Hospitals and clinics on the way
Allcove's launch of in-person services has been delayed multiple times. The start of the Palo Alto center, located at 2741 Middlefield Road, was bumped from May to October this year before being pushed back again to next year. County officials say the holdup has been caused due to a prolonged permitting process with the city of Palo Alto and building condition issues with the landlord of the property. The hope is to have construction done by January 2021 and open by March 2021.
The second Allcove location in San Jose received permits in June and is expected to finish construction next month.
At a committee meeting last week, Simitian said that there needs to be a stronger sense of urgency. North County residents have been pushing for something like Allcove for years, he said, and the county has yet to respond in earnest.
"It has taken us five years to get to this point," he said. "Things are moving too darn slowly."
Santa Clara County is also seeking to construct a new inpatient psychiatric hospital for teens, filling an unmet need for beds. As it stands now, adolescent patients in crisis are sent to inpatient units outside of Santa Clara County, including Mills-Peninsula Hospital in San Mateo. The plan is to complete the design of the hospital by February next year and begin construction in February 2022.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.