Two community mental health centers in Kansas hope a new program will help young people recently diagnosed with schizophrenia avoid its possible complications — a higher risk of unemployment, homelessness and incarceration and lower life expectancy — and achieve goals for school, work and their personal lives.
This year, Valeo Behavioral Health Care in Topeka received a $193,000 grant from the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to start a program in Shawnee County for young patients in the early stages of psychosis. Wyandot Center in Kansas City launched its program last year with help from a $174,000 KDADS grant.
Christine Wills, director of mental health programs at Valeo, said the early intervention program will focus on patients age 15 to 25 who had their first episode of psychosis within the last two years. She estimated 25 to 30 patients could participate in the first year.
People with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders can experience a variety of symptoms, including hallucinations, delusions, disorganized speech, unusual behavior and a restricted range of emotional expressions.
Psychosis tends to develop in a person’s teens or 20s. Valeo employees are working to identify existing patients who would qualify as well as requesting referrals from schools, emergency rooms, Stormont Vail Health’s psychiatric unit and mental health advocates, Wills said.
Calvin Shope, who is running the early intervention program at Valeo, said he anticipates most patients will need about two years to go through the curriculum. Part of the program will include educating patients about their illness, but it also will focus on finding their strengths to overcome the challenges of schizophrenia, he said. Patients also can expect homework as they start using new skills.
“We all have things in our life that we struggle with, and this is no different,” he said.
The program also will include support for meeting employment and education goals, Wills said. Patients’ families will learn about psychosis and how to support their loved one, she said.
“You change it so it’s not so disabling,” she said. “We get them back to school, back to work.”
Medication is part of the program, but patients will start by receiving lower doses, Wills said. Many people don’t stay on their antipsychotic medications because of the side effects, including muscle aches and weight gain, she said.
“When you start with higher doses, you immediately have a lot of side effects,” she said. “The chances of them not following through (with treatment) are much greater.”
Jennifer Krehbiel, early intervention team leader at Wyandot Center, estimated about 70 people have participated in the program in Wyandotte County since April 2015. While it is too early to know if they will do better in the long term, Krehbiel said Wyandot employees have been successful in building relationships with patients and assuring them that the fear and anxiety they feel about their symptoms is normal, she said.
In recent years, the mental health community has started to put more emphasis on helping patients build skills to deal with hallucinations or delusions, Krehbiel said. Many patients still experience those symptoms even if they take medications, but reducing the negative feelings that surround delusions and hallucinations can make them easier to manage, she said.
“Instead of trying to eliminate voices, you’re trying to reduce the distress from those voices,” she said.
The hope is that an individualized and less jarring type of treatment will encourage patients to continue receiving help after they turn 18 and aren’t under parental authority, Krehbiel said. Working with a team to reach their goals can be more appealing than having to submit to whatever parents and other authorities think is best, she said.
Even if the programs succeed in their goals, however, there isn’t any guarantee that they will be able to continue serving patients. The Valeo grant lasts for about 15 months, and afterward the center will have to find another funding source or stop offering the program, Wills said.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse than starting something, getting people’s hopes up … and saying we can’t do it anymore because the funding’s not there,” she said.
Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC