Jamie Lehane’s son was 18 years old and had just gone off to college, when Lehane’s phone rang unexpectedly.

“I got the call from the campus police that, ‘Your son is being rushed to a local community hospital, and that he’s had a serious mental breakdown,’” Lehane said. 

It turned out to be a psychotic episode. Lehane said his son was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

For Lehane, who is president of the organization Newport Mental Health, this moment more than a decade ago was a turning point. He had dedicated his career to working in mental health, but he saw firsthand how easy it can be, as a parent, to misinterpret early signs and symptoms of mental illness in young adults.

“Even though full adult serious mental illness doesn’t emerge until late teens to 25...we should have been more alert,” Lehane said. “And because he was the captain of two varsity [sports], the basketball and the baseball teams, ‘Oh, he’s going through a phase and it was a breakup.’ Here I am, a national expert in children and adult mental illness — I missed it!”

Lehane said his now grown-up son is healthy and thriving, in part because of the effective treatment he got as a young adult. But many others go much longer, even years, from their first symptoms of severe mental illness to when they finally receive treatment.

“What happens in that ramp up period is hell,” Lehane said. “Trauma, arrests, co-occurring drug use — that is disabling, that’s as much as disabling as the initial mental illness.”

That’s why Newport Mental Health launched the new young adult center in December, to specialize in early intervention.

The program, called “Healthy Transitions,” is open to people 16 through 25 years old. The location is entirely separate from Newport Mental Health’s other sites that serve older adults. It’s decked out with games, and the staff is looking to get bean bag chairs. Little touches to make the space feel fun.

Team leader Gina Mullen said the environment is important, since the stigma around mental health contributes to young adults’ reluctance to seek help — or even recognize the unique challenges they face as mental health issues.

“Just developmentally what is supposed to happen — the milestones during that time — is challenging,” Mullen said. “And it doesn’t take much for somebody to go off course.”

Sometimes young adults go through periods of sadness or depression, Mullen said. But the team at the young adult center is trained to spot behaviors that indicate more severe mental health disorders, like clinical depression.

During the pandemic, over 60 percent of 18 to 24 year olds nationally have reported feelings of anxiety or depression. Those figures are significantly higher than for any other age group.

Newport Mental Health sought federal funding for the center before COVID-19 hit, so it’s only by chance that it opened as young adults are facing mental health struggles of new proportions.

“We were already identifying this as a top need. Now it’s a top need on steroids,” Lehane said.

Staff hope to treat 45 people in the program’s first year. Two months in, they’re already working with about 20 young adults.

Those clients are treated regardless of their ability to pay, or whether they have insurance. And Healthy Transitions is an outpatient program, so they are able to live at home — and stay in school or their job, if they have one.

“Because when you fall out of your natural supports and meaningful activities in life, that’s where the disability builds and builds,” Lehane said. 

The program is already treating a wide spectrum of mental illness. Some clients have severe depression or anxiety, while others have PTSD or are experiencing their first episode of psychosis.

One teenager presented with delusions, out of touch with reality. But after the staff worked with the client and his family, they figured out that he was inadvertently inducing his psychosis through drug use. He’s been doing better since.

“Here’s one kid. We may give him a life like my son, where maybe he wouldn’t have had that opportunity,” Lehane said.

Beyond these individual successes, the program hopes to support a larger cultural shift around how young people think and talk about their mental health, especially during the pandemic. 

When the center opened, Newport Mental Health sent out postcards to every household in Newport County. Several of the center’s first patients are young adults who saw that postcard at home and referred themselves.

“So I think we’ve come a long way,” said David Boscia, director of community support programs at Newport Mental Health. “We have a long way to go with stigma related to mental illness, severe and persistent mental illness especially. But we’re definitely seeing progress in the area where a 17 year old says, ‘I need help.’”

At a time when so much of the world feels like it is at a standstill, the new center wants to reassure young adults, they don’t have to wait for that help.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Newport County residents can also call Newport Mental Health’s emergency line at 401-846-1213.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. She can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org