Three years ago, Naomi Verdugo’s son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the middle of his senior year of high school. Yet neither the school nor Arlington County offered much in the way of counseling services for Verdugo’s son, as he made the difficult progression from high school to college.
Verdugo and her husband were forced to play the roles of parents, case managers and therapists, but their initial efforts proved feckless. Their son failed his classes at NVCC and went through six jobs in under a year.
"ONCE HE got sick, he was like a hot potato," Verdugo said. "There was no one in the school to help him transition to life with a mental illness. And there was nobody in the community to offer services."
While her son is now receiving proper counseling, and putting his life back together, Verdugo’s anger over the lack of Arlington services for mentally ill young adults has not abated.
She was one of several members of the Arlington chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness who, during a press conference last week, called on the county to dedicate more funding to help young people between the ages of 17 and 24 recover from mental illness and lead productive lives in the community.
Arlington has only one full-time employee devoted to aiding young adults with mental disorders, and that position was created just this past fall.
"Arlington offers little support for any family who has a child or teen who is diagnosed with mental illness and who has the ability to purchase private-sector services," said Betsy Greer, NAMI-Arlington’s chapter coordinator. "Arlington has caring, dedicated and committed professionals, but no programs that provide support for the transition of youth from school to the adult world of work or post-secondary education."
NAMI-Arlington members urged the County Board to fund the Community Services Board’s budget request for a $60,000 pilot program that will provide employment and housing assistance to youths afflicted with mental illness.
"THE COUNTY has ignored the problem of transition-age youth for so long," said Verdugo. "…We need to encourage the county to find ways to be more pro-active and keep kids from getting sick so they don’t wind up on a hospital roll for the rest of their lives."
Earlier in the week, County Manager Ron Carlee presented to the board a fiscal year 2007 budget proposal that provided for no new county programs and cut funding for several services.
Those at the press conference, held at Lyon Park Community House, said it would be hard to accept that the county could not find the money in an $800 million budget to pay for such a small program.
"I’m shocked that Arlington can care about funding things like parks and second languages in schools, but can’t find $60,000 for this vital program," said Sheila Mack, whose son has been diagnosed with a mental illness.
ONSET OF mental disorders tends to occur in the late teens or early 20s. It is critical that intervention and counseling begin soon after the first signs of an illness appear, in order to reduce the risks of a crippling episode that can lead to hospitalization, Greer said.
No one knows exactly how many Arlington youths suffer from serious mental illness. The Child and Family Mental Health Services estimates that about six students who graduate from high school each year require transitional assistance, but the number is most likely much higher, Greer said.
Recent research has shown that up to 6 percent of adults have a severe psychiatric disorder, she added.
Latonya Whitaker is the county’s sole youth transition case manager, having been hired in September. The position was created for Whitaker, and previously there was nobody in the Department of Human Services who provided young adults with vocational and housing assistance.
"I stepped into a void," she said. "There were no programs for young adults… Everyday I find gaps in the system."
Whitaker said she counsels 11 Arlington youth on a regular basis, but has helped more than 40 during her six months on the job. Every week she travels to Arlington high schools to give presentations on mental illness and talk with students and teachers.
"We have to engage and empower these young adults to help them be part of the system," she said.
Members of NAMI are pushing the county to increase the vocational training and employment assistance it offers youth with mental illness. Employment, Greer said, can be just as important as medication in keeping individuals out of intensive care.
Having a job can be therapeutic, and provides a much-needed boost to a young adult’s self-esteem, said Bob, who declined to give his last name because his son is currently receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder.
"Employment is critical to the transition to independent living and breaking this cycle of failure," Bob said. "It provides a critical structure to their lives."
Yet youth with psychiatric disorders may not last long in a job if they are not receiving additional counseling, as Verdugo learned with her son.
NAMI members hope that if the county approves this pilot program, more Arlington young adults will be able to hold down steady jobs and make a full recovery from their illnesses.
"If we train these kids in job skills or how to function in college, they won’t need as many public services in the future," Verdugo said.