EASA programs help young people experiencing first-episode psychosis

The Register-Guard, August 3, 2014

Voices graphic 2Robin Miller, 28, said she was in college several years ago and “everything was going great,” but then she began hearing voices from another room, or through the ceiling, when she was playing the violin, critiquing her performance.

She started having psychic thoughts, believing that she could predict local events. She had hallucinations: “I saw people turning into witches; people turning into aliens.

“My friends told me I needed help,” Miller said, but she resisted. “One of the symptoms is you don’t believe you have a problem. It’s very interesting how the brain can cause you to believe things that aren’t real.”

Finally, her psychosis got so bad that she was refusing to eat or drink, believing it would poison her, and she ended up in the hospital.

Miller began to regain her life after she enrolled in an early intervention research project through PeaceHealth in Eugene. It is part of the broader statewide Early Assessment and Support Alliance, or EASA, program to help young adults who are experiencing psychosis for the first time. It is a relatively new program that is now expanding, with the help of state grants, to serve more young people.

Psychosis is common and treatable. It affects 3 out of 100 people, and usually strikes for the first time between ages 15 and 30. Symptoms include confused thinking or speech, delusions, and seeing or hearing things that other people don’t.

If left untreated, psychotic episodes can become more severe, increasing the likelihood of hospitalization or involvement with the criminal justice system, said David Neale, a therapist with PeaceHealth’s EASA program.

By trying to reach patients within three months of their first psychotic episode, “we can be quite influential over the trajectory of the illness, reducing hospitalization and hopefully changing outcomes and quality of life for individuals,” Neale said.

Through PeaceHealth’s program, Miller received two years of intensive services tailored to her needs, including counseling, medication, education help and family support. She learned how to manage her symptoms and resume her goals, instead of having her life derailed by a potentially debilitating illness.

“I got coping skills,” she said. “It teaches you to be resilient.”

Miller graduated from the program two years ago and is a student at Lane Community College, working toward a career in psychology. She said she wants to help people who face the same kinds of struggles that she did.

By getting the right services at the right time, Miller and hundreds of other young Oregonians and their families, have been able to find hope in what had seemed a hopeless situation.

EASA programs across Oregon serve about 400 young adults each year, said Tamara Sale, who directs the EASA program statewide.

She has been involved with EASA, which was modeled after an Australian program, since 2001, when it launched in five Oregon counties, not including Lane County.

Sale said she had a personal interest in finding better treatment for people experiencing psychosis because her brother developed the illness in the late ’70s when they were both teenagers growing up in Colorado.

“He didn’t experience a lot of things that I take for granted in my life,” Sale said. “He’s never held a job. He’s never had the kinds of relationships and the independence I would have wanted for him. He’s a brilliant person — an inventor and incredibly talented. He was motivated to work, but there was nothing to support him in doing that. The care he got was involuntary, and he had terrible early experiences with medicine side effects and no one paid attention to that.

“I can see how easy it is to spend millions of dollars on one person with poor outcomes if you don’t do it right,” Sale said. “We spend huge amounts of money just to warehouse people basically. It’s a tragedy because the people who I know who experience psychosis are generally extremely intelligent and have a lot to contribute.”

EASA has opened up opportunities for hundreds of young Oregonians.

“EASA did quite a bit to help me and my family get my life back on track,” said Michael Haines, a graduate of the EASA program in Clatsop County and now a peer support specialist with the program in Eugene. “Without EASA I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

Now with a fresh infusion of funding, PeaceHealth is expanding the local EASA program to reach more young people.

PeaceHealth received a $475,000 state grant to serve up to 75 patients — more than double the number it had been serving for the past several years, said Carla Gerber, head of the local EASA program and PeaceHealth’s manager of outpatient behavioral health.