After losing son to suicide, parents work to close gaps in mental health services for young adults | Michigan Radio
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After losing son to suicide, parents work to close gaps in mental health services for young adults

Oct 14, 2019

When it comes to supporting and treating young people who struggle with mental illness, the safety net in Michigan has a lot of holes. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34, but finding appropriate medical care is often a difficult process. It can take months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist, even when a young person is in crisis. 

If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255.

Freelance journalist Julie Halpert experienced this struggle firsthand. Her son Garrett grappled with depression on and off, but lived what she describes as a “full life.”

During a particularly difficult period in his early 20s, Garrett was seeing a therapist and searching for mental health care options that didn’t involve hospitalization. He had previously been to the emergency room, but did not find that the experience had helped him.

“He was really looking for ways to heal that were not in a hospital setting, that were not in an institutional setting, that were not stigmatizing,” Halpert said.

But Garrett and his family ultimately could not find the kind of care that he needed. Garrett died by suicide in 2017 at the age of 23. 

Dr. Victor Hong is an emergency room psychiatrist at the University of Michigan. He noted that Halpert’s story is not unique, and that there are “numerous gaps” in Michigan's mental health care infrastructure.

Hong said that it can take months of waiting for a person in crisis to get an appointment with a psychiatrist. Those who end up seeking help in the emergency room may face financial or insurance barriers once they’re there.

Halpert also pointed out that there are a range of “in-between situations” that the current mental health care system fails to address.

“[There are some] people who are really struggling severely, but that are not actively suicidal,” Halpert said. “They need to see their therapist more than once a week, but they don’t need to necessarily go to the emergency room.” 

It’s a gap that Halpert is now seeking to fill with Garrett’s Space, a nonprofit funded in part by donations previously made to the Garrett Halpert Memorial Fund at the University of Michigan Depression Center. 

Halpert said she envisions Garrett’s Space as a residential treatment center in Washtenaw County where young adults between the ages of 18 to 28 with mental health issues can go for a few weeks to learn strategies for coping and resilience. 

In addition to providing traditional therapy, Halpert wants Garrett’s Space to offer “holistic approaches” to healing like meditation, yoga, music, and peer-to-peer support.

Hong said a residential program like Garrett’s Space could be a particularly important resource for young people who are being discharged from a psychiatric hospital. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the risk of a suicide attempt or death is highest within 30 days of being discharged.

Halpert plans to make Garrett’s Space available for all people “regardless of [their] ability to pay.” She hopes that it can serve as a model to inspire the creation of other residential treatment centers nationwide.

Garrett’s Space is still in the early stages of planning. In the meantime, the nonprofit is focusing on “interim programming.” For example, they are going door-to-door in Washtenaw County to distribute lists of resources for people struggling with mental health issues.

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