It was about a year ago that Loudoun County began to see a noticeable rise in suicides, especially among teenagers.
That’s when community leaders looked for ways to improve the mental health safety net. They found one, called Turning Point, in neighboring Fairfax County that had seen some success. The Loudoun County Community Services Board and McLean-based nonprofit Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services Inc. teamed up to launch a similar program here, called Linking Individuals & Managing Care. LINC is an intensive, two-year mental health program to help young people experiencing psychosis find hope and recover.
Now, just more than a year in, the Loudoun County program has helped 18 individuals, has 16 enrolled now, and has space for more.
One western Loudoun mother credits LINC to giving her son the hope of recovery from his dark mental illness. She wanted to share his story to spread the word to those who have friends or family experiencing psychosis that help is available.
“I want to give hope to other people, and I want programs like LINC to continue because they’re meeting a need that would otherwise go unmet in our community,” said Beth, who requested her last name not be published to protect her son’s identity.
Her son’s journey with mental illness started in June of 2014. The Loudoun Valley graduate returned home from college for summer break changed. He wasn’t his typical outgoing, social self. He was experiencing hallucinations, hearing voices, and felt paranoid about his and his family’s safety. He stopped eating, drinking and sleeping. “He couldn’t be around people, where as before, he couldn’t not be around people,” his mother said. “At times, he would be awake for days and days and days.”
At first, she hesitated to call law enforcement. Just months earlier, 17-year-old Christian Sierra had been fatally shot by a Purcellville Police Department after his friends called for help because he was threatening suicide. “This made the decision to call for help more frightening and difficult,” she said. “… When my father had Alzheimer’s, we could call an ambulance to get help for him. But when my son was psychotic, we had to call the sheriff’s department. That’s really frightening.”
He was treated at a Loudoun County hospital for 28 days. He was discharged while he was still psychotic and with no clear continuing treatment plan, other than an appointment with a psychiatrist. He returned to the hospital three months later for another 28-day stay after police officers found him wandering the streets of Purcellville in a catatonic state. Two months later, he transferred to John Hopkins Hospital, where he received a month of inpatient care and a month of outpatient care.
Beth said her son made big strides there, but again left without a comprehensive long-term treatment plan, other than direction to attend psychiatrist and therapy appointments, of which often refused to attend because it meant overcoming his intense fear of leaving the house.
That’s when her family discovered LINC.
In March 2016, she read about the program in a Loudoun Now article. She called Lisa Beran, LINC’s primary clinician, who said her son would likely be a good fit. She assured Beth to not worry about convincing him to leave the house; she would come to him.
“I got off the phone and cried,” Beth said.
LINC provides a treatment team for each client: a therapist; a work and education specialist, a care manager and a peer support member, someone who is in their own mental illness recovery process. Together, with the client, they come up with goals and a plan of how to meet them.
[See related sidebar: Investing in Mental Health Services.]
The 19-year-old is halfway through the two-year program, and has seen major progress. He’s successfully completed a college class. He has a part-time job in woodworking and landscaping. He’s involved in his church. And he has friends, a key to recovery after so many of his relationships had been strained during his darkest moments.
“He has so much more than I could have hoped for, and I am confident that is he going to progress,” Beth said. “Now he would say, and he has said, how much he appreciates the LINC team and how much they have done for him.”
The founders of LINC chose to focus specifically on treating psychosis because there was such a gap in care for people experiencing the mental disorder that, by definition, is so severe it impairs a person’s grip on reality.
“A lot don’t get the services they need so they’re unfortunately living with these very serious symptoms,” Beran said.
And in the past, without the right care, the expectations for recovery were not high for people with psychotic disorders, Beran said. “They can be in and out of hospitals, lose connections with friends and family, and end up going to a group home,” she added. “But if they get these services quickly, the outcome is outstanding. They can return to work or school, rebuild relationships and live independent, normal lives. That’s what I love about this.”
Beth said, throughout the past two years, she and her family have discovered a world they never knew existed. One that, when her son’s first psychotic episode crept into their lives, they felt that they were alone in it.
“We are so much more aware now. … If you understand that 20 percent of 13 to 18 year olds are going to suffer from a mental health crisis, then we’re talking about a lot of people impacted,” she said. “It would be dishonest to say that we are not all touched by this. We’re not alone in this. So many lives are impacted.”