Cory Fisher

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May 6, 2014
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Growing up with mental health conditions the focus of community meeting

The road to adulthood is often riddled with obstacles. A typical individual’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 30.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the average 20-year-old has a “greater risk of impulsivity” and is “50 percent more likely to do something risky if two friends are watching than if he’s alone.”

Research also asserts that the younger brain often exercises poor judgement, is impaired when organizing and is more reactive to negative reinforcement. Yet young people are under tremendous pressure to build a strong foundation that could have a profound impact on their future life as adults.

Not surprisingly, for young people with serious mental health conditions, these pressures can be extremely challenging and often crippling, said Lael Walz, behavioral health care coordinator for Sierra Family Medical Clinic.

Because diagnoses and treatment can be entirely different for younger people, Walz says Nevada County is sorely in need of a more effective safety net for this group.

Walz, who also serves as community developmental specialist for EMQ Families First and is president of the Nevada County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, helped oversee a focus group and consequent survey on the needs and realities of the county’s young people with mental health conditions.

The findings from her survey, which took a year and a half to complete, will be the topic of a meeting Wednesday with the Community Support Network of Nevada County. The meeting is open to the public.

“We made contact with 117 people,” said Walz. “Our intent was to give local young people with mental health conditions a voice and concurrently gather the latest research on how to best help them. The big question is, ‘How can we as a community help our young people?’”

Survey participants included local young people, parents, adult consumers over age 30, stakeholders from the faith, justice, business and education communities, as well as many working in mental health and social services.

Some mental health conditions emerge as early as age 6, yet many go undiagnosed until adulthood. It’s vital to go beyond simply treating the symptoms, said Walz, as they are rarely reveal the best course of treatment.

Local survey results revealed that 85 percent of young people with mental health conditions struggled with school, even with support; only 7 percent were employed and supporting themselves and 86 percent used substances of some kind other than prescriptions.

Additionally, 63 percent had been hospitalized in an “acute psychiatric hospital at least once,” and 40 percent had “some criminal justice contact.”

Nationwide, a startling 21 percent of youth between 13 and 18 live with mental illness severe enough to cause significant impairment in their daily lives, reports the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Roughly 50 percent of mental illness strikes youth by age 14 and 75 percent by age 25, finds the NIMH. Additionally, symptoms of anxiety disorders tend to emerge by age 6, mood disorders by 13 and substance use by age 15.

Yet only 40 percent of youth with mental health conditions receive treatment, and often up to a decade after symptoms have emerged.

According to the University of Massachusetts Medical School, young people with serious mental health conditions “are delayed in every area of psychosocial development that has been examined to date.”

These conditions need to be recognized, diagnosed and treated much earlier, stressed Walz.

“Statistics show that mental illness is a young person’s condition,” she said. “Yet we seem to focus more of our attention on treating adults. We see some 50-year-olds who have been struggling all their lives, and research shows that primary care providers are troubled as to how to best treat depression.”

The Nevada County survey revealed that 84 percent of those with mental health conditions said they had “a hard time making friends” and a whopping 90 percent “struggle with self-advocacy.”

The survey found that many young people with unpredictable behavior are just along for the ride until they learn to manage their roller coaster of emotions. Consequently, family members are often struggling and in need of support.

“People need to be more empathetic — there is neurobiology behind their conditions,” said Walz. “Some of these kids who are untreated are doing illegal drugs just to feel normal.”

In the survey it was clear, Walz said, that Nevada County’s young people want jobs, friends, an education — and to feel fully integrated into the community.

“How we engage with our young people is critical,” said Walz. “We as a community don’t do this very well. It’s time to shift the focus from blaming these families to giving them strength-based support so we can help lift them out of these crises.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email or call 530-477-4203.

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The Union Updated May 6, 2014 01:02AM Published May 7, 2014 10:30AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.