By John McNeilly
Loudoun County has experienced many heart-breaking tragedies involving young people, from suicides, to overdoses, to deadly interaction with police. Each time, the community—on social media and in schools, churches and workplaces—engages in spirited dialogue about what can be done to better serve at-risk teenagers and young adults who struggle with the early onset of mental health disorders.
Now, a promising new mental health program to help young Loudoun County residents has arrived.
Two months ago, the Loudoun County Community Services Board, in partnership with McClean-based Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (PRS), launched “Linking Individuals & Managing Care” (LINC), an intensive, two-year mental health program based on a successful model – called “Turning Point” –established a year ago in Fairfax County.
Funded with a combination of federal, state and local dollars, as well as community and private fundraising, the program treats Loudoun County residents between the ages of 16 and 30. It’s an intensively coordinated, patient-focused program that serves youth experiencing their first psychotic episodes. LINC uses a team-based approach involving case management, psychotherapy, employment training and placement, rigorous family and peer engagement, and, where appropriate, low doses of antipsychotic agents.
The program’s objective is simple: To recognize young peoples’ first episodes of psychosis to help reduce the duration between early mental health disorders and adulthood, when treatment becomes much harder to manage.
“We’ve heard repeatedly from older patients that if they had had professional help at a younger age, they believe they would have been able to lead more productive, healthier lives,” Tom Schuplin, director of Special Projects at PRS, said.
And the problem of youthful psychosis is very real. According to a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the majority of lifelong mental illness cases begin between the ages of 14 and 24. The organization argues it’s critically important to provide early, comprehensive care to reduce periods of untreated illness.
According to Schuplin, some overt warning signs include hearing voices, experiencing visual hallucinations, or expressing delusions combined with paranoia or grandiose notions. He points out that families might not immediately notice such changes, but may observe subtler signs, such as a child who starts alienating themselves from the family, spending a lot of time alone, not interacting with other family members, or becoming progressively more argumentative and belligerent. Some might even talk out loud to themselves.
The fact that many of these behaviors could apply to many teenagers in Loudoun indicates the difficulty of assessing potentially deeper problems.
“If you see someone every day, changes can be so gradual that it may not be as noticeable,” said Wendy Gradison, CEO of PRS. “Mental illnesses hit young people who are already going through their teen years, which are already somewhat volatile and when behavior tends to be more dramatic anyway. This is another reason why these symptoms can be so confusing to families, who may just attribute them to the normal struggles of adolescence.”
And although families may not immediately recognize significant changes, peers often do, especially because of the terrifying, confusing nature of psychoses. Schuplin says it’s not unusual for friends and teachers to make parents aware of dramatic behavioral changes going on in their children’s lives.
“A lot of times young people are really frightened by all this. They don’t know what’s going on,” Schuplin said. “They may think that this is something that is a temporary state. Perhaps they smoked marijuana, or used some other drug, and now they’re hearing voices and they think it’s a result of that.”
Schuplin and Gradison also point out that today’s considerable pressures on youth exacerbates depression and other mental disorders.
“We know that young people today are dealing with so many issues. They talk to us about stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-injury, about coming out, school pressures, and they often feel like there’s no hope,” Gradison said. “And young people are more impulsive than adults, which is why it’s so important for them to know that things will get better, that there’s help available.”
Because the program is relatively new in Loudoun, Gradison and Schuplin are pushing to get the word out about LINC. They launched a new website (www.loudoun.gov/LINC), established a help hotline (703-777-0147) with a phone texting option available (text “connect” to 85511), and are also reaching out to treatment facilities and hospitals to make them aware of the program. They also plan to launch a school outreach program going forward.
Regarding treatment costs, the program is needs-based, meaning patients pay what they can on a sliding scale, although insurance will often cover many of the services and medications required. The remainder is supplemented by assistance from local government and the community.
“Cost will never be a barrier to getting treatment,” Gradison said. “It’s more important for kids to know they don’t have to suffer in silence and that there’s help, and hope, available.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the incorrect name of Loudoun County’s new mental health program. The program is called Linking Individuals and Navigating Care (LINC). Loudoun Now regrets the error.
See related Loudoun Now articles: “Teens Help Teens Stop Suicide with New Partnership” and “Purcellville Leaders Target Hard-to-Reach Youth.”