Helping Young People Beat Mental Illness

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

Twenty-year-old David Navarrete tried to slit his wrists four years ago, in the grip of severe depression, a condition he inherited from his mother. Luckily he survived and got therapy – first from the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center in Rancho Mirage, and then from the Harmony Center – a mentoring program at the Oasis Community Services in Indio.

“When I first got to the Harmony Center I didn’t think I fit in,” he said. “Then I started meeting new people. And I saw that I could relate with people. Somebody knew what I was going through. It felt good.”

Once he recovered, David felt compelled to help other teenagers. So he returned to Harmony – this time as a counselor for 16-25 year olds, also called Transitional Age Youth, or TAY. He says he wants society to view mental illness as a disease that can be treated, not stigmatize the issue as a character flaw.

Recently David took part in the third annual TAY “un-convention, ” a conference in Rancho Mirage where 160 people from 80 different organizations got together to brainstorm ways to help 16-25 year olds cope with mental illness. “That’s the age group when people are starting to realize who they are, who they’re going to be, who they want to be, whether they want to make smart changes in their lives,” he said. “If we focus on that now, it’s going to determine who they are long term.”

Kraig Johnson, with Oasis Community Services, says he organized the conference to encourage networking among the various public agencies and nonprofits in Eastern Riverside County that deal with mental illness. “This is an opportunity for service providers to determine what services are available to their kids and create a forum for introductions and collaboration so they can talk about how they can better serve their clients,“ Johnson said.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the Probation Department each sent officers to the conference because they often deal with the violence in the home that can push young people toward depression and suicidal thoughts.

Debbie Kahng from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention asked the crowd of mental health providers to change the way they talk about suicide. “If we can stop using the word ‘committed’ suicide, and replace it with died by suicide… that alone breaks the stigma.” Kahng also pleaded for volunteers- ideally teens who can be trained to run a support group.

Janell Gagnon, with Operation SafeHouse, offers free counseling sessions to young people fleeing abuse. She says, “The therapy helps them identify the common negative thoughts and replace them with more realistic and positive thoughts.”

Cathy Romero, from Family Services of the Desert, told the crowd that abused teens sometimes become bullies or fall into abusive liaisons. “We’re seeing the largest group of people that are being victimized in their relationships are in the 16-25 age group. They’re really not equipped to understand how it’s supposed to work for them, how to set healthy boundaries. “ Romero came to the conference seeking agencies to work together to sponsor speakers on intimate partner violence at local high schools.

Johnson adds, “Oftentimes these kids come to us and haven’t had that nurturing background. And so it’s difficult for them to progress into transitioning from childhood to adult hood. They lack some of the skills that you and I take for granted. They’re becoming young adults with hormonal issues. They’re having to fight the mental health issue in addition that.”

County Supervisor John Benoit says Riverside County spends millions each year in funds from the Mental Health Services Act of 2004 (Prop. 63) to fund patient services, including the Indio Outpatient Clinic, which sees about 125 new intakes a month.

Supervisor Benoit added that the Affordable Care Act may improve the situation for troubled young people because it requires health plans sold through the new health exchanges to cover mental health.

“We’re still learning about the ACA. Some of these programs can be reimbursed by a person’s insurance. We expect the number of those cases will rise under the ACA. That may be optimistic but we’re hopeful,” said Benoit.

In the meantime, David Navarrete continues to help other young people learn coping skills and conquer their pain. “It shows them, hey I did it – you can do it too.”

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