- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mental illness can make people feel isolated and alone in their struggles. “Wraparound” support systems can remedy that, starting at a young age, federal and state mental-health experts say.

When school-age children with emotional or mental illnesses are embraced by a circle of professional and personal supporters, they are more likely to stay in school, get better grades and graduate from high school, new data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says.

These are all excellent outcomes, since children who drop out of school because of mental illness find it harder to get good-paying jobs or lead self-sufficient lives.

Annie, a lovely 17-year-old, is one of the young people behind these statistics. Last year, she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. It soon grew serious enough to threaten her life.

Through a series of community fundraisers, Annie’s desperate mother and family raised thousands of dollars to get her into a residential treatment center. The intense professional therapy stabilized Annie and got her moving toward recovery.

What would happen, however, when Annie returned home?

The answer is Kalamazoo Wraps, a “system of care,” or SOC, that is funded, in part, by a $9 million SAMHSA grant.

Annie’s mother, Christine Eckrich, recently explained to me how “wraparound has just really moved mountains for my daughter and our family.”

Every month, she said, Annie and her family members meet “around the same table” with their family’s pediatrician, eating-disorder specialist, dietitian, family therapist, individual therapist and wraparound resource coordinator. Annie and her family also have weekly one-on-one meetings with these people.

“What it does for my daughter is so many things,” Ms. Eckrich said. “It holds her accountable for her recovery; people watch her through the month to make sure she is following through with her goals and her plans.”

It also encourages her to want to succeed, she said. “She knows all these people, and she knows they really care about her.”

“Wraparound” is relatively new policy in that “it’s family driven, strength-based, needs-driven and very individualized,” said Michelle Houtrow, a project leader at Kalamazoo Wraps.

Years ago, she said, the model was for communities to offer a program and plug kids into it. Now “it’s really about looking at what are the needs [of children and families] first, and then asking, ‘Do we have a service or resource to meet those needs?’ And if we don’t, ‘How can we be creative to put it in place in our community?’” she said.

SAMHSA has funded SOCs since 1993 and currently has 59 sites, said Gary M. Blau, chief of SAMHSA’s child, adolescent and family branch.

Besides helping children thrive in school and stay out of courts and child welfare systems, SOCs are reducing the number of suicide attempts among these children, he said. “Suicide remains the third leading cause of death for teenagers in this country, and clearly, from our perspective, it’s the most preventable of deaths.”

In Jonesboro, Ark., their SOC currently works with 125 children and their families, said Matt Knight of Arkansas Collaborating to Improve Our Network (ACTION) for Kids.

The local juvenile justice system “loves us,” he said. Not only do troubled youths see their health improved by being in an SOC, but very few of them end up incarcerated again.

Creating a specific safety net for a child is not necessarily a new idea, but it’s one well worth investing in, Mr. Blau said.

Years ago, as a clinical psychologist in Connecticut, he said, “I could see a youngster for one hour a week.” But there are 168 hours in a week, and the big worry was always, “What about the other 167 hours?”

With SOCs, he said, it’s clear that children and teens “do better — they stay out of juvenile justice, finish school and frankly become happier people.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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