Two Clinics Opening To Treat Psychosis Early, When Intervention Is Key
Gabriel Maytorena was 12-years-old when he had his first psychotic break.
“There were times where I would wake up and I would feel like I was being choked,” he said. “I would hear laughing and beat my head against a wall.”
He started hearing voices and became convinced that people could read his thoughts. He felt like he was losing himself, he said.
Now, at 18, he said he has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. And, after years of treatment, he’s taken what was once a burden and turned it into something positive.
Maytorena is one of the young adults who serves on the Youth Leadership Council for Mercy Maricopa, the regional behavioral health authority in the Valley. It’s made up of 14- to 26-year-olds who are living with mental illness and helps the behavioral health provider tailor services for young people.
Now, he wants young people with mental illness to know that they’re not the only one, that they’re part of a larger community.
But, he said he certainly felt like the only one when he went through that first episode.
“A lot of members, a lot of young people, especially, the first time they experience an episode or symptoms of mental illness, they're scared,” according to Katie Galligan, the Transition Age Youth Coordinator for Mercy Maricopa. She advises the Youth Leadership Council.
“They don’t want to come forward,” she said. “It might be years and years before they seek their first help and by that time, you know, the illness has taken its toll on them, they have been out of work, they may have been out of school.”
But if they can get treatment early, when psychosis first appears, usually in someone’s late teens or early 20s, they have an all-important chance to change the direction of their lives, according to Dr. Nick Breitborde. He opened one of the first Early Psychosis Intervention Centers at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 2010 and now runs the Epicenter Program at the Ohio State University.
“The mission that we are trying to accomplish here is to really bend the curve in terms of what we expect for recovery for these young adults,” he said.
And recovery often isn’t part of the conversation for many people who experience psychosis. Breitborde said that schizophrenia is one of the most debilitating illnesses that can affect you, and the outcomes of treatment are not usually very good.
Breitborde said that’s partly because most people with symptoms of psychosis go two years before they get any kind of treatment and, then, they can miss their window of opportunity.
“During those first few years, this is a period of time where people are most responsive to the treatments, whether it be medication or therapies here,” he said.
Now, two new early-psychosis centers are opening in Phoenix to give young people a place to come for treatment when they first start experiencing symptoms of psychosis — and help them on the road to recovery.
The Institute for Mental Health Research and Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care opened a second Epicenter in downtown Phoenix in October. And, Maricopa Integrated Health Systems is opening a First Episode Clinic in west Phoenix this December.
“That’s really huge because in Maricopa County, we have a lot of young people in the behavioral health system, and we hadn’t had a center like this,” Galligan said.
In Maricopa County alone, there are about 450 young people each quarter who are transitioning out of the child behavioral-health system and into the adult one, according to Galligan. And, she said, that transition can be a challenge.
“It’s almost like, some young people tell me they feel as if the bottom drops out when they turn 18,” she said.
She said teenagers who "age out" of the child system can easily get lost. And then they can fall away from treatment all together.
“It’s a large change, it’s super stressful,” she said. “If they don’t have immensely positive experiences with either system, they’re not going to stay.”
When Maytorena first started going to clinics for mental-health treatment, he said it was tough for him to open up.
“It was very corporate, it was very professional,” he said. “I never felt comfortable, I always felt intimidated by the environment.”
When it came to designing the new Epicenter, the Youth Council was involved from the beginning to make sure this wasn’t like any other clinic.
“They looked at the décor, they looked at how they were going to have the floors, the artwork, what color the walls were going to be, what the space looked like,” Galligan said.
The center is open, bright and friendly, with a community room, outdoor space and a colorful mural painted on the outside.
“Those are the tiny nuanced things that we don’t think about that could really make or break a young person continuing on with behavioral-health services once they turn 18,” she said.
For Maytorena, the new center is a chance for him to make things better for other young people than they were for him.
“When you start in the children’s system, because of the bad experiences that you have, you focus so much on the negative that you want to be done with it at a certain point,” he said.
He said he often felt alone and when he was 16, he attempted suicide for the first time. But, as he got older, he decided to change his mindset, because that’s one thing in the behavioral health system that you can change.
“I mean, you can’t change your mental illness, or, sometimes, you’re environment, your culture, your family,” he said. “But, you can change your mindset and the way you look at things.”