As a high-achieving student-athlete at James Logan High School in Union City, Kurtis Riener took all advanced- placement and honors classes and ran cross-country and track. While such rigorous demands could cause stress for any teen, Kurtis’s anxiety completely overwhelmed him. At age 16, he asked his parents if he could see a therapist for his mental health. They agreed, and he began working with a professional.
The staff at Herrick made what was a horrible time in life a little better.
Even so, determined to major in engineering in college and pursue a career in building prosthetics, Kurtis frequently studied into the early morning hours, robbing him of much-needed sleep and ramping up his anxiety and negative thoughts. As his junior year wore on, his symptoms only intensified. Finally, when his anxiety turned to thoughts of self-harm, Kurtis drove himself to a local emergency department and was admitted into the hospital. This would be the first of the teen’s seven hospital stays.
“We had no idea he was suffering in this way, that he didn’t feel safe, so it threw us for a loop and was a very scary time,” says Eileen Riener, Kurtis’s mother. “Kurtis is truly self-aware, having recognized that he needed help and checking himself in.”
Although Eileen and Terry Riener had raised Kurtis’s two older siblings through adolescence, they had limited experience with mental and behavioral health issues until their youngest child needed this type of help. The Rieners had lived in Union City for more than two decades, but when it came time to locate appropriate mental healthcare for Kurtis within their community, they came up short. “There is a tremendous lack of services across the Bay Area, and we didn’t find a lot of support for families like ours,” Eileen explains. “We had a horrible experience at a local psychiatric hospital.”
Finding the Right Kind of Care
Eventually, through their own research and a recommendation from an ambulance driver, Kurtis and his family chose the Alta Bates Summit Behavioral Health Program at the Herrick Campus in Berkeley the next time he felt the need for hospitalization.
The largest community-based psychiatry program in Northern California, the Behavioral Health Program addresses a range of mental and behavioral conditions, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and chemical dependency.
Kurtis was stabilized through Herrick’s inpatient program and ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Then, over the next two years, he participated in the adolescent and adult programs, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient treatment.
“The staff at Herrick made what was a horrible time in life a little better,” says Kurtis, now 20. “They are compassionate and engaging, truly making me feel more human during very difficult times.”
The Herrick team also recognized and nurtured Kurtis’s willingness to play an active role in his recovery journey. “Kurtis was very motivated for treatment — he was hungry,” says Scott Percy, inpatient treatment coordinator for the Behavioral Health Program. “He wanted to understand what was going on, to learn coping skills and to start to feel better.”
Eileen believes this patient-focused, collaborative approach was instrumental to Kurtis’s recovery. “It was important to my son to be actively involved in his care, and the nurses and doctors truly listened to him,” she says. “We are so grateful for the programs at Herrick.”
Addressing a Pressing Problem
Kurtis’s journey with bipolar disorder and anxiety is not unique. Nearly half of all mental health disorders begin by age 14, and roughly 21 percent of California adolescents need help for emotional or mental health problems. Yet despite the prevalence and the potentially serious consequences of not seeking treatment, any number of factors may prevent teens from accessing appropriate care. Common roadblocks include a lack of awareness of these conditions, the social stigma often tied to them and the limited availability of affordable mental healthcare.
In recent years, Herrick’s Behavioral Health Program has seen a surge in depression and anxiety symptoms in adolescents, including self-harming behaviors, suicidal ideations and eating disorders. There is now a several-week waiting list for the adolescent outpatient programs, although the center remains open to everyone in the community, either through direct inquiry or referral from a school counselor, physician or caregiver.
“A lot of these kids have extremely low self-esteem, and the best way to build that is to put them in a safe environment with a group of kids who are also suffering, to learn they are valuable and important,” Percy says. “We want to build a sense of community.”
In response to this growing need in the areas served by Sutter Health, the philanthropy team at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center is launching a special fundraising campaign. With the generosity of donors, the goal is to improve the experience of adolescent and adult patients and expand access to expert specialty behavioral health services for underserved patients.
Support for Patients’ Families
In late 2018, Herrick created a support group for parents of teens in the Behavioral Health Program. Led by Percy and Willa Walter, a licensed marriage and family therapist, the monthly parent sessions replicate aspects of the teens’ group classes.
“Having a support group helps the parents feel less alone; it’s more holistic care,” Walter says. “Including families and mirroring what their kids are experiencing gives everyone the same language and opens hearts and minds to provide more support for the kids.”
Recently, she and Percy invited Eileen and other alumni parents to join the moms and dads of teens newly enrolled in the program. The intent is to help everyone realize that they are not alone — that they are part of an important, supportive community.
“I agreed to join as an alumni parent to help other parents who are thrown into this situation, but in the process, I learned that the group helps me too,” Eileen says. “I wish a group like this existed when we were entering our crisis, and I am thankful to Scott for inviting me to join.”
Sharing Experiences to Help Others
Despite missing most of his senior year, Kurtis, with the help of Herrick teacher Jonas LaMattery-Brownell, received enough course credits to graduate from high school and was accepted as an engineering student at Cal Poly. He attended college in San Louis Obispo for a while, but the difficulties of being away from his support system eventually brought him home to study at Chabot College in Hayward.
Kurtis has since changed his course away from engineering to become a peer coach for transitional-age youth experiencing mental health issues. He now works with La Familia, a nonprofit organization that serves a variety of mental health and community needs throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Also, Percy is working on scheduling Kurtis to come back to Herrick to speak with kids currently in the Behavioral Health Program.
“I’ve always wanted to help people, and dealing with my own illness makes me feel much more connected to and eager to help others with mental illness,” Kurtis says. “I know it can feel pointless to learn coping skills, but as I keep working at my own recovery, I’ve discovered that practicing those skills actually helps me get through. I am excited to share that knowledge with others.”
Kurtis was also invited as a subject matter expert to consult with local government officials who had learned about his story. Together, they hope to expand access to behavioral health services throughout Alameda County.While Kurtis may have set aside his original dream of building prosthetics, he is still making his mark in service to others — by helping those dealing with the same challenges he faces.