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Mental health group wants more help for adolescents with mental illnesses

NAMI Syracuse

A mental health advocacy group in Syracuse is pushing for better services and understanding of adolescents with mental illness. Families say adolescent mental health services fall short in a number of ways in central New York.

Karen Winter Schwartz was coping with a late night mental health crisis with a family member, when a mental health specialist told her to go to the phone book and look up CPEP, the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program in Syracuse.

"I had never heard of CPEP," Schwartz said. "You’re going through a phone book at ten o'clock at night in a crisis looking for CPEP. It wasn’t fun. No one should have to do that."

Schwartz is now the executive director of the central New York chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, or NAMI. She says this disconnect when it comes to referrals is just one of the issues facing families with adolescents in the throes of mental illness. Another problem is follow-up care for those kids, once they’ve been treated.

"They often stop taking their medication," Schwartz said. "There’s not enough people to follow up with these people and make sure they get that continuity of care, and make sure they continue with care. And before you know it, they’re off their medication and the whole cycle begins again.”

Perhaps one of the biggest issues is a lack of adolescent inpatient beds. Schwartz says there are restrictions on the only beds available in central New York, at the Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse, forcing many families to travel to other parts of the state to visit their children.

"Hutchings has the facility, they have 30 beds, but if you have private insurance, you can’t go there unless you're rejected to other places," Schwartz explained. "So you’re more than likely to be kicked out. So if you’re Medicaid or special services you can go to Hutchings, but that leaves out many, many people."

These stumbling blocks in treatment have long term implications especially for adolescents, says Dr. Stephen Glatt, associate professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

"The earlier someone starts to get treatment to symptoms, the better their prognosis will be," Glatt said. "The better their outcome will be.”

NAMI continues to try and get its point across though education campaigns and by lobbying lawmakers. Glatt believes part of the answer is changing the way people think about persistent psychiatric illnesses, like depression and bipolar disorders. And the best way to do that is to get information about mental illness into a school's health curriculum as early as elementary grades.

"For the next generation, my goal, and our goal as NAMI, is to make talking about mental health and mental illness is just as routine as talking about cancer or any other disorder that affects their family, affects their health, but something that’s treatable, so there’s not stigma attached to it," Glatt said.

He says the idea behind getting a mental health curriculum included in schools is for people to take mental illness seriously.

"To use proper language to refer to symptoms, instead of using crazy, nuts, maniac," Glatt explained. "There is proper language and terminology that can be used to discuss mental illness, and to talk to people with mental illness, not to treat them as outsiders, but to understand the problems they’re going through and to relate to them as individuals.”

He admits it’s tough with all the state mandates schools have these days.

“You have to teach about drug abuse, you have to teach about bullying," Glatt said. "Our view is that drug abuse, bullying and mental illness goes hand in hand. So by educating kids about mental illness, you are actually meeting these mandates. We’re actually gaining a little traction, but we need more support.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.