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Navigating mental illness — Programs help young adults gain life skills

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 26 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Camille Houston and Matthew Albretsen lead a meeting of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Youth Council in Salt Lake City. The group of youths with mental illness looks at ways to improve programs that will help them make a successful transition into adulthood.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Serious mental illness affected approximately 2.4 million young adults ages 18 to 26 in 2006, according to a 2008 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

In Utah exclusively, more than 14 percent of the population visit community mental health care centers.

Still, less than 20 percent of individuals who need mental health services receive them, which is where a five-year federal grant awarded to the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health steps in — providing services for about 400 youths throughout the state.

Young adults with mental illness face many challenges in their transition into adulthood, said Ming Wang, project director in the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health at the Utah Department of Human Services.

Programs funded by the grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are meant to address that problem, providing group meetings and personal counselors to teach young people how to apply for jobs, ride public transportation, find housing, cook and live on their own.

"Successful treatment can really help them (mentally ill youths) to become productive citizens when they enter adulthood," Wang said. "They are able to define themselves and not let the illness define them."

Take, for example, Camille Houston, a 19-year-old from Syracuse.

Houston said she loves sushi, writing and drawing and has ambitions to become a fashion designer.

She also has a mental illness, but after receiving youth-in-transition services from Davis Behavioral Health, Houston learned the life skills she needs to gain independence.

The government-funded programs taught Houston how to use public transportation to get to her meetings and allowed her to delve into her personal interests.

Last year, Houston was timid about speaking in public and sharing her art, but now she is speaking out to help others understand mental illnesses and is selling her artwork, Wang said.

Youth-in-transition services have given her more confidence, knowledge and patience.

"After people get to know me, they tell me I'm more mature and wise than people they know that don't have a mental illness," Houston said.

Having insight about her own limitations is what sets Houston apart from those with mental illness who have not yet received assistance, she said.

Likewise, 20-year-old Michelle Vance has learned to deal with her mental illnesses so she can live independently: Vance recently moved from her hometown of Sandy to live close to her boyfriend in Arizona, where she works at Home Depot and plans to attend a community college this year.

Vance began attending youth-in-transition meetings when she was 17, where she gained confidence through case workers who valued her opinions and views, she said.

The validity she felt at those meetings was a great contrast from the way she felt among her peers, she said.

"People always said, 'Oh, she's crazy,' " Vance said. "There's a stigma around people with mental illnesses."

As a former member of the Valley Mental Heath Board who is still working with board members to improve policy and services, Vance is working to break that stigma.

"I've gotten to the point where I realize people don't understand what's going on, and if they have questions, I will just answer them," she said. "We're all born with different challenges, and this one is mine."

Matthew Albretsen, a 19-year-old from Salt Lake City, said he has faced similar misconceptions about his mental illness.

"People judge me, thinking I can't do something," Albretsen said. "But it's just an illness. You take medicine, and then you are healed that way. I am not less of a person."

He gives advice to those with mental illnesses, saying to keep pushing forward, proving people wrong and not listening to anyone who puts you down.

And Albretsen has taken his own advice, learning to deal with stress and accomplishing goals with the help of the "Reconnect" program at Valley Mental Health.

Albretsen graduated from Granite Peak High School last year and is now working in real estate, interning at Monroe Capital Investments and preparing to serve a two-year LDS mission next year.

"Matt is a good example of how our program can help youth with mental issues learn what it takes to be an independent, healthy member of society," his case manager, Laura Jones, said.

Wang said that each of these young adults proves that with the right fostering, mentally ill young adults can not only lead productive lives but become leaders in the community.

"I see them not just being successful young adults, but also being future leaders, speaking and advocating for different things," Wang said.

And as mentally ill teens are given the resources they need to embrace their challenges, Wang said she hopes they will be embraced by society as well, proving they have something unique to offer.

e-mail: bbrown@desnews.com

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