Photo of Dr. Ragland and Carter Dan Ragland and Cameron Carter are heading up the research initiative.

Shelton Yip, an administrator with the Sacramento City Unified School District, estimates that as many as 5,000 students — 10 percent of the district's total — have unmet mental-health needs.

It's a serious, even dangerous, problem, as Yip knows from personal experience. The night of Yip's high school graduation, a fellow student erupted into violence and killed his own family.

Sadly, mental health issues in young people are not uncommon. Approximately 2 to 3 percent of youth and young adults develop schizophrenia or a severe, psychotic mood disorder, with most cases developing after age 12. Psychotic illness is crippling: Seventy-five percent of people who have schizophrenia become disabled and only a small percentage is gainfully employed. An estimated 12 to 15 percent of people who suffer from psychosis commit suicide.

"Mental health problems in youth can destroy lives," said Yip. "Add on top of that the language or cultural barriers many of our ethnically diverse Sacramento students face, and it can be a challenge to get kids the help they need to succeed in life."

Photo of Dr. Carter"If troubled young people get attention early, you will likely see better outcomes."
— UC Davis psychiatrist Cameron Carter

Help is on the horizon. Yip is one of several community partners working with UC Davis to reach out to youth through a research initiative called the Early Detection and Intervention for the Prevention of Psychosis Program. The community-wide project, made possible by a $2 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, aims to identify young people between 12 and 25 who show early signs of psychosis and prevent the onset and consequences of serious mental illness.

More than 15 community organizations from the Sacramento area are involved, including Yip's school district, African-American Mental Health Providers, the La Familia Counseling Center and the Hmong Women's Heritage Association. A community advisory board whose membership is reflective of Sacramento's ethnic diversity has been set up to help with outreach.

"The critical foundation for this effort is the community in which our young people live," said J. Daniel Ragland, deputy director of the program. "We will reach out to teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses, students, parents, clergy, police officers and others who interact regularly with young people and educate them on the early signs of psychotic illness so they can identify teens and young adults who are at risk."

UC Davis psychiatrist Cameron Carter is heading up the effort. Over a two-year period, higher-risk young people will receive evidence-based, psychosocial support and education, treatment and medication. Those with lower risk will receive careful monitoring, support and referrals for further treatment, as needed.

Carter said the program, along with similar efforts at four other U.S. sites, amounts to one big "demonstration project" intended to show that early intervention can reduce or even eliminate the symptoms of mental illness.

"There's a stigma attached to mental health like there was to cancer 30 years ago," Carter said, observing that nowadays, through regular cancer screening, people are getting diagnosed early and survival rates have improved.

"Our expectation is that the same holds true for mental health," he added. "If troubled young people get attention early, you will likely see better outcomes."