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Local Mental Health Organization's Youth Screening Program Focuses on Early Detection

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

A local arm of a national mental health advocacy organization has developed a successful way to screen children for signs of possible behavioral issues. 

A 2010 report from the National Advisory Mental Health Council said one out of every four adults in the US suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. The local program garnered attention last month when it won an award from a national mental illness campaign.

When Mindy Wendt’s 11-year-old son Matthew gets upset, he sometimes punches holes in the wall.

In his room, there are three holes above where he lays his head at night.

Wendt said she and her husband try to fix them when they can.

“Every year we ask for a Home Depot gift card from my parents so we can patch up his room again,” she said.

She said his outbursts may come from something called intermittent explosive disorder.

He’s also bipolar, has sensory processing disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

Mindy Wendt
Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU
Mindy Wendt

Wendt said sometimes she feels like she’s drowning.

“I could tell you horror stories of my child and tell you wonderful stories at the same time. You really feel like you have Jekyll and Hyde on your hands and you don’t know what to do,” she said.

Three years ago, when Matthew was a third grader at Sabal Palm Elementary in Naples, the school told Mindy Wendt her son would be a good candidate for a program called HUGS.

HUGS stands for Health Under Guided Systems. The National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI of Collier County started it in 2010.

“The earlier we can help families identify somebody that may have a problem and get them to want help is certainly the key to long-term success,” said NAMI of Collier County’s CEO Kathryn Leib-Hunter.

She said her group gets the word out about HUGS through a number of ways including working with schools and taking an RV on the road.

If parents are interested, they fill out a questionnaire about their child.

Leib-Hunter said the HUGS program screened 1,600 kids in 2014 to see if they should have a free follow up assessment.  

“The national average of using these screening tools of children that would warrant follow up is 20 percent. What we're finding is 24 percent of children in Collier County are scoring high enough to warrant follow up,” she said. 

To get that assessment, parents get to pick what Kathryn Leib-Hunter calls a “navigator” – basically, someone to guide them through the system to get help.

“We believe parents should have choice regardless of whether they have Medicaid or no insurance. We want to empower parents to have choice in the system,” she said.

A school Mindy Wendt's son, Matthew, attended first suggested he participate in the HUGS program.
Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU
A school Mindy Wendt's son, Matthew, attended first suggested he participate in the HUGS program.

MindyWendtsaid her navigator,Gayla Bowden, has recommended programs and counseling - among other things.

“We call NAMI and we say, 'Hey we don’t know what to do anymore' and Kathryn makes sure and Gayla - they make sure we have counseling, that the kids have their medications, that if we needed respite, they would make sure we would get that,” she said.

There’s also an educational component to HUGS. NAMI of Collier County has a program on mental health that about 700 mostly high school kids participated in last year.  

 For Wendt, education means learning ways to work with her children.  Matthew has a younger brother who also has mental health issues and a three-year-old sister. Wendt said she worries her daughter is picking up behaviors from Matthew.

“They’ll teach me little techniques to say okay there are ways to shelter her from that without making her feel excluded from everything,” she said.

Still, Wendt said her son’s outbursts – the one’s that lead to holes in the wall – can seem like a never ending battle. But, she said, early detection is key, and NAMI of Collier County and HUGS have helped.    

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Topher is a reporter at WGCU News.
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