At the community mental health center east of downtown, people scheduled for therapy appointments stamp out cigarette butts on the sidewalk after a few last drags. Inside, others picking up prescriptions sit in a hospital-like waiting area, some with everything they own stuffed in backpacks and shopping bags. Fairly often, someone shouts or sings or talks to themselves.
Teenagers don’t like it here much.
So they don’t come often — to the Mental Health Center of Denver’s clinical offices or to its adult psychiatric rehab center south of downtown, where instructors teach culinary job skills in a cafe and art classes in a basement studio. In fact, the age group least likely to seek and get help at the mental health center is 17 to 25, about the same age range when many serious mental health issues — including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — typically first emerge.
That’s why the mental health center opened a new kind of “cool” youth clinic, a house with bean bags and an espresso machine, where clients ages 14 to 26 can join a drum circle in the basement, take an art class and, on a recent October afternoon, carve pumpkins on the front porch.
The center purchased Denver’s historic Flower-Vaile House, an 1889 two-story Queen Anne with elaborate porches and purple trim, for $1 million in 2015. The house, which opened full time a year ago, is unique in Colorado and beyond. It’s called simply “Emerson St.”
Instead of lying on a couch and telling a therapist about trauma, teens can sit side by side with their therapist and talk as they play Wii. Even the lingo is less intense — it’s a “meet-and-greet,” not an assessment, and it’s called “goal-setting” instead of a clinical “treatment plan.” Youths are welcome to check it out during “pop-in” hours, or sign up for a creative writing or guitar class, though it’s not just a hang-out house, so they eventually have to engage in clinical and group therapy.
Before buying the house, the center ran the numbers and found that only 44 19-year-olds were receiving clinical treatment through the community mental health center, compared with 111 16-year-olds and 116 26-year-olds.
“They all told me the same thing: ‘We don’t feel comfortable here. We don’t want to be around old people, no offense,’” recalled Michelle Wiley, program manager for Emerson St.
So far, about 250 youth clients have visited Emerson St. for therapy or mental health prevention.
Emerson St. is drawing more of the younger crowd into Denver mental health services overall, with preliminary data showing a jump from 1,086 youth engaged in services a year and a half ago compared with 1,465 now.
The point of Emerson St. is to help young people deal with mental health issues before their lives get too far off track to recover.
“They have a better chance of realizing their goals and having the life trajectory that they want,” said Wiley, a licensed professional counselor.
Nate, who doesn’t want his last name used because many of his friends don’t know he has bipolar disorder, walked into Emerson St. for the first time because his mom made him. The now 26-year-old had been hospitalized several times following his first manic episode as a college student. He spent three months in Fort Logan, one of Colorado’s two state-run psychiatric hospitals, and was released to an adult residential treatment center.
A mental health center case manager drove him to a halfway house, where he immediately felt out of place. He was the youngest person in a group of 40- and 50-year-olds, some of them “sitting around outside chain-smoking,” he recalled. The man Nate was supposed to room with was asleep. He called his mom and asked if he could come home.
But back at home, Nate isolated himself, spent his days reading and watching television, and avoiding anyone he knew.
Nate had been a gregarious athlete in high school, voted “biggest party animal.” But a month after he went away to college, his father died of cancer. He left school and sank into a depression, his grief a catalyst of the severe mental illness that would wreak havoc on the next few years of his life.
Emerson St. “helped me get back to feeling comfortable around others and gave me people to speak with when I felt uncomfortable,” Nate said.
At first, Emerson St. got him out of the house. Now, he’s all in. He harvests squash and tomatoes from the house’s garden, goes to group sessions with peers, and with help from Emerson St., got a job doing kitchen prep at a local deli.
Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and three-quarters have emerged by age 24, according to National Institute of Mental Health research. Even so, it is sometimes decades between the first onset of symptoms and when people receive treatment, the institute found. Without treatment, psychiatric disorders are more likely to become resistant to treatment as they grow more severe.
Anxiety disorders often begin in late childhood, mood disorders in teenage years, and substance abuse issues often arise in the early 20s, according to the research. “Unlike heart disease or most cancers, young people with mental disorders suffer disability when they are in the prime of life, when they would normally be the most productive,” the institute said.
Because mental illness often hits in the teenage years and early 20s, just when people are mapping their lives, it can have a huge effect on education, career and marriage. Youths with severe mental illnesses often disappear, lose touch with their families, Wiley said. Eventually, they show up in hospitals and jails.
“We’re then starting to help someone who needed help five years ago,” she said.
Teens and college-age clients are developing their sense of self, “of who they are now and who they want to become,” Wiley said. Staff at Emerson St. help with college applications, tutoring for GED exams, plus lead discussion groups on culture, sexual identity and gender identity.
Before opening, mental health center staff met with the neighbors on tree-lined Emerson Street, who were worried that young people would start sleeping outside on their block and loitering around the historic house. Turned out, the neighbor who was the most outspoken then is now one the house’s biggest supporters. “It was really just about people’s fears,” Wiley said.
The house at 1610 Emerson St. is open 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. Monday-Friday. “Pop-in hours” are 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays.