Young adults fill mental health services gap with peer mentoring

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Millennia Dunn has stylish strands of electric blue hair and black and red acrylic nails. Instead of enjoying Veteran’s Day with her friends and family, wohe 18-year-old is at a leadership regional retreat for PEERS TAY.

PEERS stands for Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services, and TAY means Transitional Age Youth (TAY), or people ages 16 through mid-20s. Typically, the health care system specializes in assisting children, adults, and elderly adults, leaving the TAY group without specialized care. The mental health services inside and outside of hospitals are not tailored to meet the special circumstances of these young adults, leaving them without proper care.

At the PEERS headquarters near the Oakland airport, Dunn and other TAY members and volunteers from southern California and San Francisco were discussing some of the issues faced by people in this age group. Among them were the names given to people suffering mental illnesses, accusations of faking emotions, and lack of mental health tools geared towards black men. After brainstorming some resolutions, the group of young men and women wrote down their practical proposals on bright-colored Post-Its that covered the walls of the conference room.

Dunn began volunteering over a year ago during her senior year at Life Academy in Oakland. “There are people who need training about what to do and what to expect [from transitional age youth] instead of killing and putting them into prison,” said Dunn about why she works with PEERS TAY.

PEERS TAY, Pool of Consumer Champions (POCC) TAY, and Downtown TAY are three groups delivering services and support to this age group in Oakland. “Alameda County is recognized as [giving] the birth of the consumer movement in California, and is also central to the national movement,” said Jay Mahler, a mental health consumer movement pioneer and member of POCC.

The services provided by the groups in Oakland are divided into two main categories—assisting the health care consumer and exchanging information with health care providers. The lack of resources specifically tailored to meet the needs of this age group have led program staffers to provide members with tools and guidance to help with everyday life tasks. Financial help for housing, career advice and skills, mental health and basic health education such as hygiene are some of the resources available.

“There was a gap, and there wasn’t anything to provide to a young person who was considered an adult, but not really an adult,” said Bree Williams, a PEERS TAY founder and program manager.

“You can be 18 and legally an adult. But if you’re 18 and you don’t have housing, you don’t have a job, you don’t have family support, you don’t have all these things that other people may have,” she continued. “That’s why the system was created.”

According to Williams, the mission of PEERS TAY is to employ people, provide educational opportunities for them, give them a sense of belonging, and normalize mental health so that people can actualize their goals.

The PEERS TAY program offers workshops to prepare its members to represent people in this age group at mental health conferences by teaching them about wellness, triggers and how to handle them, facilitation skills, and leadership development. The twice-a-week meetings are open to members and volunteers who get to share their opinions and feelings about mental health. They also organize presentations with the goal of obtaining funds for TAY programs and services, as well as sharing their concerns with health care providers.

“I feel like it’s a calling,” said Dunn. She has given presentations to possible donors, such as banks. The topics of her presentations include things like how developing free-of-cost programs for this population can improve their lives, and the importance of finding better practices for mental health providers to treat this age group.

People in this age group “just need support. [Not] to just to be pushed away,” said Williams.

TAY groups in Oakland and the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services (BHCS) conduct and report on their research on the socioeconomic factors affecting this group. According to BHCS’s Transitional Age Youth Services Strategic Plan, some of the specific social factors affecting these groups in Alameda County include involvement in the foster care system, juvenile arrests, homelessness, dropping out of school, community violence, alcohol and drug use, lack of health insurance and poverty.

“TAY with severe mental illness (SMI) often ‘fall between the cracks’ of the mental health care system as they age out of children’s services at age 18 and then reappear in the adult system,” wrote Michelle Burns, system of care director for Alameda County BHCS’s TAY, in the introduction of the plan. “Even when age-appropriate services are available many TAY and their families are unaware of the resources or how to connect with them.”

The knowledge behind TAY advocacy comes from founders and organizing staff members’ own personal history with mental health issues. The Alameda County mental health movement has been lead by Mahler, whose experience with mental health issues as a young man motivated him to organize consumers and healthcare providers.

A nervous breakdown during his freshman year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley left Mahler at a mental institution for years, he said. “You can’t help but not feel the pain 50 years later,” said Mahler, speaking through tears as he recalled his experience receiving electroshock therapy in the public psychiatric health system during the 1960s and 1970s. “I’ve gone from Jay Mahler being a person, to Jay Mahler being a patient,” he recalled.

After moving to outpatient treatment, Mahler got his bachelor’s degree in psychology and became a member of then-Alameda County District Supervisor Gail Steele’s mental health committee. According to Mahler, Steele believed the consumer should have their voice heard. After being her campaign manager when she ran for the Oakland City Council in 1974, Mahler launched his life-long journey of aiming to amend policies affecting people with mental illnesses.

Since then, he has taken political action to promote mental health services in California. In Alameda County, Mahler’s work with POCC organized local consumers and in 2006 fundraised more than $50,000 for a PEERS’ campaign to confront stigmas about mental health. In 2007, the TAY system of care in Alameda County was founded, with Mahler’s work being one of the establishing forces. 

Helping TAY members directly, and representing the community at fundraising presentations, is Dunn’s motivation to continue her work with PEERS TAY throughout her time in college—and she hopes to continue afterward. “If we do something now and build this confidence, there is soon going to be a solution to end a stigma and questions” about mental health, said Dunn.

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