AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin is collaborating with Austin Community College to create a new, two-year pilot program to help address adolescent mental health.

The Amplify Center will open this fall and service a minimum of 200 ACC students between the ages of 18-29, offering mental health screenings and diagnostic assessments. The program will begin at ACC’s Eastview campus, specifically to help provide mental resources to “a medically underserved part of Travis County,” Dell Med officials said in a release.

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In addition to screenings and diagnostic assessments, students will be able to receive individual counseling, peer support and resource navigation assistance to connect with other community services.

“We’ve been having these ongoing conversations with numerous partners in our community about how to tackle this issue,” said Dr. Deborah Cohen, Amplify Center’s executive director. “Because within Austin, but also nationally, we aren’t great at serving this age group, and they end up getting lost through the cracks.”

For more severe conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, she said this age group is where symptoms first develop. However, most patients must meet all the symptoms noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to be eligible for treatment, Cohen said.

Officials have said the 16-25 age window is a critical timespan when many people begin to develop mental health symptoms but are at risk of going undiagnosed due to service gaps between pediatric and adult health care providers.

“How our current systems and structures are set up is that you have to fully meet all symptom criteria to qualify for those programs,” she said. “So with this age group, they just tend not to qualify for our adult systems, and they get turned away until they’re in crisis.”

Tapping into adolescent perspectives

As part of the program’s development, Dell Med and ACC utilized an adolescent advisory council through the Center for Youth Mental Health. Sara Mansoorshahi, an advisory member, said she was drawn to the program due to seeing firsthand the impacts of mental health conditions.

With the teenage and early adolescent time period being such a pivotal time for diagnosing and treating mental health conditions, she said it was important to have the adolescent lived component as part of the program planning process.

“A lot of us share the same opinions about different things that we’ve experienced and coming to the professionals,” she said. “Giving them our insight can be really important because it kind of contextualizes what we learned through school and academic practices to real life experiences.”

For her, she said the transition from teenage years into young adulthood comes with its own significant stress factors, in addition to pivoting from pediatric to adult medical health care providers. She said she hopes a more adolescent-catered program can help remove the stigmas surrounding mental health and make seeking treatment more accessible.

“When you see someone that you can kind of identify with being a part of this kind of program, that can kind of just make you feel more welcomed or see that you’re not alone,” she said. “Especially in those beginning stages, whenever someone’s trying to get into mental health services for the first time, it allows them to make that transition and feel comfortable and safe throughout.

From roots in Australia to expanding across Austin

The Amplify Center is based off an Australian program called Headspace that was created about 20 years ago. Since, Cohen said various iterations and spin-offs have been implemented globally, with it more recently hitting the United States.

Austin’s Amplify Center will be the first version of the program model launched in Texas, Cohen said.

“This model has been very successful in other countries, creating an early intervention system,” she said. “We want to figure out how to make it sustainable to improve our continuum of care.”

The two-year pilot was established using grant funding from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, along with funds from Love, Tito’s and Twin Liquors.

As the program develops, its focus will include expanding to additional ACC campuses and community sites throughout Travis County. Dell Med’s Center for Youth Mental Health is also exploring additional donor opportunities to increase the number of people serviced through the program.

For program participants with more acute mental health care needs, they will be referred to Integral Care, one of Amplify Center’s collaborators.

“We have repeatedly found in our research that when we asked young adults about engaging in mental health care, that we have created a culture of crisis,” she said, adding: “We want to make it easier and we don’t want young adults to feel like they have to be in crisis before they want [treatment] and they ask for help.”