Jennifer De Leon graduated at the top of her Palm Desert High School class, but when it came time to apply to college, it felt like the world was crashing down around her.
“I would always go to the next higher level,” she said. “Honors, advanced placement. Then I broke down.”
“I wasn’t in good shape,” added De Leon. “It was just too dark. Everything was meaningless.”
She started taking pills from her parents’ medicine cabinet and was hospitalized after drinking a bottle of liquid Tylenol.
For more than a year since then, De Leon, who turns 20 in December, has received treatment from Riverside University Health System Behavioral Health.
During that time, she has gone from leaving her bed to holding down a job and rebuilding relationships with her parents and friends.
During an interview this fall, she was “feeling better” but still struggling with a few things, including her self-described “intense perfectionism.”
The game changer has been Desert FLOW, an outpatient youth mental health clinic and resource center that opened in 2017 in La Quinta that specifically serves people ages 16-25.
But you probably wouldn’t hear the staff describe DESERT STREAM that way. They are told to avoid using words like “patient” and “clinician”.
The staff makes the place feel more like a club. It’s a space where teens and young adults can gather to play games, practice yoga, do arts and crafts, and cook—and receive individual, group, or family therapy. “FLOW” means fun, love, opportunity and well-being.
In addition to providing psychiatric and ongoing mental health services, staff help connect youth, including De Leon, with housing and employment resources, life coaching and legal services as needed.
To keep the atmosphere informal, there is no front desk and youth can “walk in” to use the common spaces as they wish, explained Behavioral Health Services supervisor Alisa Huntington.
Desert FLOW is one of three transitional age youth centers run by Riverside University Health System. The others are in Perris and Riverside.
About 150 to 200 “TAYs,” as Huntington and others call transition-age youth, use various services through the La Quinta location. About half of them engage with the center in an average week, Huntington said.
Traditionally—and, in many cases, legally—age 18 is a difficult cutoff between being treated as a youth and as an adult. TAY centers aim to ease the transition to adulthood for teenagers who need mental health care and access to social services.
“Turning 18 doesn’t have to be a crisis,” Huntington said. “Part of the problem before TAY centers was that when people turned 18, they often fell through the cracks of behavioral health.”
Centers like Desert FLOW aim to fill that gap.
“If we can give teens access to services when they’re 16, we can prepare them for turning 18,” Huntington said.
She explained that many teenagers are labeled as adults but lack the skills and resources needed for independent living, a gap she said is often exacerbated by mental health diagnoses.
“Our goal is for TAYs to be able to live independently on their own or with their family and fulfill more of their life dreams, maintain employment and have an intact support group,” Huntington added.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 50% of mental illnesses it starts at the age of 14 and another 25% start at age 24.
The brain is not fully developed to the mid to late 20s, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Across the country, mental health issues for teenagers worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as many experienced feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
Locally, Huntington said she has seen an increase in suicide attempts and suicidal ideation that continues to rise.
“I don’t think it’s slowing down, unfortunately. It’s still going on,” Huntington said. “I don’t know if that’s related to the pandemic. I think the pandemic made it worse, but I don’t think it’s an independent issue.”
In 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported feeling consistently sad or hopeless during the past year. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“Isolation, I think, definitely played a role in how I felt,” De Leon said. “Even when I hated school, I felt the joy of seeing my friends like a breath of fresh air.”
The high-achieving student said she believes the stress of academic excellence played a role in the deterioration of her mental health, and the COVID-19 health and safety protocols probably made things worse.
But her struggles were nothing new.
Around the age of 10, De Leon said he realized he was struggling with perfectionism. When things didn’t go her way—especially in the classroom where she always excelled—she would get angry with herself and sometimes hit objects.
“I don’t do that anymore,” she said.
Over the years, De Leon said she built coping mechanisms to deal with her emotions, including following a routine.
Then the pandemic changed everything.
He no longer had to go to school. You will no longer see friends at lunchtime. No more extracurricular activities in person.
“My routine was disrupted,” she said.
Added on top of that was the stress of applying to colleges.
“The application felt so black and white,” De Leon said. “If there was a right choice and a wrong choice.”
The anxiety of it all weighed on him until he broke.
“I knew things were going to break,” she said.
But now, De Leon feels like things are going well. Through Desert FLOW, she has begun to build a new routine.
She follows the daily activities with her peers. Sometimes they focus on music or crafts. When Desert Sun met her, she was on her way to a yoga class taught by a volunteer instructor at the center. Five or six other TAYs also attended.
Class started about an hour later than scheduled because a bus that picks up TAYs from across the Coachella Valley and takes them to activities at La Quinta was delayed. But for some young adults living in Desert Hot Springs or Mecca, a SunLine bus ride to La Quinta would have taken even longer.
The Huntington Center is designed to serve everyone from Desert Hot Springs to Mecca.
Desert FLOW has around 20 staff in total, including a psychiatrist, nurses, doctors, lawyers and peer support specialists. Peer Support Specialists are certified professionals with lived experience overcoming some of the most common mental health and addiction issues facing teens and young adults. At Desert FLOW, each TAY has a designated Peer Support Specialist.
“As a TAY person, I had some depression and anxiety, but I didn’t know what I was going through,” explained peer support specialist Javier Sanchez.
Years later, Sanchez counsels young people to help them understand their emotions and find purpose.
As for De Leon, she is still uncertain about her aspirations.
But its progress is undeniable.
“We have success stories like Jennifer who appeared almost dysfunctional in every area, and to see her go from that to a fully functioning young person with a job with social relationships with their parents — I mean, that’s huge. ” Huntington said.
For more information about Desert FLOW, visit www.rcdmh.org or call (760) 863-7970.
Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Writes_Jonathan.
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