FIRST program in Mahoning aims at schizophrenia

By William K. Alcorn


A doctor from a Northeast Ohio medical school praised FIRST Mahoning County, a new program housed at Turning Point Counseling Services in Youngstown to provide early intervention for schizophrenia sufferers.

“It’s a myth that schizophrenia can’t be treated. It can, and the earlier the intervention the better the outcome,” said Dr. Mark R. Munetz, the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation endowed chair in psychiatry at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown.

When treated with a combination of anti-psychotic medications and psychosocial therapies, many affected by schizophrenia can and do improve their lives, said Dr. Munetz, who spoke Thursday at the ribbon cutting and dedication of FIRST Mahoning County at Turning Point, 611 Belmont Ave.

Schizophrenia is a group of severe brain disorders in which people interpret reality abnormally, which may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behavior. It is a chronic condition, requiring lifelong treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

FIRST Mahoning County, a comprehensive team-based early-identification and treatment program for people with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, is a collaboration among Turning Point, the Mahoning County Mental Health Board, COMPASS Family & Community Services, and NEOMED’s Best Practices in Schizophrenia (BeST) Center.

“Treatment works, people recover, and recovering people work,” said Joseph Caruso, president and chief executive officer of COMPASS, which also participates in FIRST Trumbull County established about a year ago.

FIRST programs, primarily for those who’ve had a first episode of a psychotic illness, also are in Summit and Portage counties.

The six-person FIRST Mahoning County treatment team consists of a team leader and family psycho-educator; a case manager; two counselors; an advanced practice nurse, and a supported employment/education specialist.

The Mental Health Board provides financial and other support for the program through its mental-health levies, said Ronald Marian, mental health board executive director.

“The early identification and treatment of schizophrenia is an urgent task. Emerging studies suggest that early intervention is very important, and that it can lead to a faster and more complete recovery,” Marian said.

Joseph Sylvester, Turning Point director, said an experience in college in which a friend developed schizophrenia gives him a special interest in the program.

“I had no concept of what it was or what to do. But the agony and pain of my friend was an eye-opener to all of us. He was not in touch with reality. It felt like a death,” he said.

Fast forward to 2011, Sylvester said he received a call from a friend whose college-age child was having hallucinations. This time, he was able to direct the family to a FIRST program and the student is re-enrolled in college. The student still has some symptoms, but they are controlled with medications.

FIRST Mahoning County is looking for referrals, and the earlier the better, from hospitals, physicians, mental health facilities, schools and police.

The program is appropriate for people between 16 and 40 with any duration of untreated psychosis or who have not been taking an anti-psychotic medication for more than 18 months, said Hattie Tracey, the BeST Center’s consultant and trainer for FIRST programs.

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