PORTLAND – A program aimed at early detection and treatment of serious mental illness in young people has proved successful enough to warrant additional funding and an expansion into three other states, officials said Tuesday.
The Portland Identification and Early Referral project targets people 12 to 25 who have early symptoms of schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.
Over six years, only 14 percent of 130 participants have suffered from a major psychotic episode a year after joining the program compared to the typical rate of 60 percent to 70 percent, said Dr. William McFarlane, who is leading the project.
Also, the rate of first hospitalizations for psychosis in Greater Portland is running at 35 percent to 40 percent lower than the rest of the state, McFarlane said.
“The PIER program is based on a simple notion, that early identification and early intervention can make a very substantial difference,” he said.
For now, McFarlane’s figures have not been peer-reviewed or replicated in other studies. McFarlane hopes to do that with a four-year, $12.4 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to continue the research.
The grant will fund additional research sites at Sacramento, Calif., led by the University of California at Davis; Ypsilanti, Mich., led by the Washtenaw Community Health Organization; and Salem, Ore., led by Mid-Valley Behavioral Care Network.
The national program office will be overseen by McFarlane, director of the Center for Psychiatric Research at Maine Medical Center and Spring Harbor Hospital.
Jane Isaacs Lowe from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation became interested in the project after discussing it with McFarlane four years ago.
“We decided to make a big bet on this project,” she said. “I think that all of us who’ve had anything to do with this project know in our gut that this works. We know it. We see it. We believe it. But it’s time to get some evidence beyond Portland.”
The idea, McFarlane said, is to nip mental health problems in the bud, before they become bigger problems that are more difficult to treat.
“The program is really designed to do what we’ve been trying to do with many other chronic diseases,” he said. “The best example is really cancer. The best way to deal with cancer, as we all know, is to identify it early enough that treatment can be effective.”
In Greater Portland, the University of Southern Maine, Portland High School and other organizations are participating in the referral process. Nearly 50 percent of referrals to the program come from families and from schools.
At a news conference Monday, the program’s importance was underscored by Alex Myhaver, 35, of Portland, who described sinking into a psychotic episode after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Southern Maine in 1999. While working as a camp counselor, he began suffering delusions about the FBI, CIA and nuclear war.
Over the next six months, Myhaver ended up homeless, banned from the USM campus, arrested for trespassing and getting beaten up, he said.
Eventually, he was committed to what was known then as the Augusta Mental Health Institute, the state psychiatric hospital. Now he’s taking medication for paranoid schizophrenia and holding down a job at the Maine Medical Center.
“Somehow, I stand before you today. I’ve been given a gift and an opportunity to recover. I call it a gift because there are so many other people who have come down with the illness and are unable to come back,” he said.