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Program helps young adults with mental illness gain independence
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Jenna Parmer, of Avita Community Partners emerging adult support services, right, and chief operating officer Cathy Ganter meet Tuesday morning, Feb. 13, 2018, at their Flowery Branch offices. Avita received funding to launch an “emerging adult” program to serve individuals 16-26 years old with a diagnosed mental illness, sometimes coupled with a substance abuse problem. - photo by Scott Rogers

The time between ages 16 and 26 brings great transition in young people’s lives.

They may be dropping out of high school, or instead entering college. They may be joining the military, or starting or losing their first job. They may be entering their first romantic relationship or experiencing their first heartbreak. They are becoming adults with all the responsibilities and burdens that entails.

“There are so many things going on,” said Cathy Ganter, chief operating officer at Avita Community Partners, which provides mental health services in 13 Northeast Georgia counties, including Hall.

It’s also the age when mental illnesses like schizophrenia, anxiety and mood disorders often first develop, according to experts.

This is why the Commission on Children’s Mental Health, created by Gov. Nathan Deal, released a report with recommendations in December on how to improve mental health services for this emerging adult population.  

Learn more about this series

In December, the Commission on Children’s Mental Health, which was created by Gov. Nathan Deal in June, released a report with recommendations on how to improve mental health services for children in Georgia. Read more about that work and what the issues look like in our community.   

“Sustained and satisfactory employment is a critical component of recovery for individuals with severe mental illness,” the report states. “Research shows that most individuals with behavioral health needs identify going to work as a main goal of their recovery process; however, assistance with employment is largely overlooked as a component of treatment.”

Avita received funding beginning two years ago to launch an “emerging adult” program to serve individuals 16- to 26-year-olds with a diagnosed mental illness, sometimes coupled with a substance abuse problem.

The Evolve Program is meant to help transition these individuals into the next phase of their life, shoring up their independence by providing support with everything from school enrollment to obtaining a driver’s license to finding employment.

“A lot of these things can be overwhelming to individuals with a mental health diagnosis,” said Jenna Parmer, who heads Avita’s Evolve Program.

Moreover, they are ill-equipped to access services available to them.

“They often fall through the cracks,” Ganter said, and Avita can “help them get to the next level of independence.”

The Hall County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provides education, support groups and advocacy for this age population and others.

Larry Adams, who has served as president of the local chapter, first began volunteering in 2000 after hoping to learn how to better assist his adult sister who had a diagnosed mental illness.

Adams now teaches the Family-to-Family course, a free 12-week program for the family members of individuals with mental illness. The course includes review of common diagnoses, medications and other treatment options, as well as coping, communication and health care skills. A Spanish-language version of the course is also available.

Adams said he has seen more acceptance and willingness in society at large and within families to discuss mental illness since he started with NAMI, and he hopes this reduced stigma helps rid shame and leads to better research.  

The commission’s report calls for increased funding support for “emerging adult” programs with the goal that these individuals “will be able to identify and achieve their goals, whether it be attaining a particular job or entering a school program.”  

“They will also be able to receive support in the form of care coordination, personalized benefits and career counseling,” the report concludes. “Placing youth and emerging adults with severe mental illness into integrated and appropriate work or school settings would result in higher self-esteem, better behavioral functioning, and increased financial stability and independence. These placements may also contribute to higher functioning as this population ages into adulthood, which will reduce the need for costly and severe interventions.”

Ganter said Avita will receive new funding for the Evolve Program in July, but it is unclear right now how this financial stream might change the programming parameters.

“We’re waiting to find out,” she added.

In the meantime, Parmer said she will continue to work with the 25-30 individuals currently active in the program who might have been referred for one thing “but we discover that they need other areas that I can help them with.”

“Whoever gets referred to us, we treat them all equally,” Parmer added.

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