For teens and young adults with newly emerging psychotic symptoms, state mental health officials are collaborating with several psychiatric centers throughout New York to provide help.
The program, called OnTrackNY, is aimed at people ages 16 to 30 who are in the initial stages of schizophrenia, a devastating psychiatric condition marked by bewildering symptoms to most patients in the emergent phases.
They hear voices, see images that others do not and wonder why their lives have suddenly been turned upside down.
OnTrackNY is designed to keep those with the emerging condition in school or on their jobs while providing professional help. It is the emergent phase, experts say, when scores of schizophrenics go undiagnosed.
The New York State Office of Mental Health collaborated with The New York State Psychiatric Institute and other affiliated psychiatric institutes at Columbia University in Manhattan to design the program.
Four regional centers are also part of the program where people experiencing auditory or visual hallucinations, disordered thinking, paranoia and other psychiatric symptoms can seek help.
In this part of the state, the regional center is at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Queens, a division of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.
In essence, the program "is all about helping young people stay in school or stay employed while learning to manage their illness," said Kristin Woodlock, acting commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health.
Schizophrenia, she said, usually emerges in young adulthood and puts people at risk of going off track -- hence the name, OnTrackNY, to provide support at a crucial time.
"We are targeting young people in that critical period when early intervention is the most important," said Dr. Joseph Schulman, executive director of Zucker Hillside Hospital.
Schulman said most young people have no idea what is overwhelming them as schizophrenia begins to consume their lives.
"It is tough for anyone to understand and if you are in this circumstance you may find that it can begin with a certain paranoia or certain illusions. The young adult doesn't know what's happening," Schulman said.
A planned aspect of the program is for OnTrackNY staff to interact with patients through social media -- but direct face-to-face contact is key.
"The goal, obviously, is to make the in-person connection as soon as the individual is willing," Schulman said, noting the program also plans an outreach strategy to aid the public by dispelling myths and misconceptions about schizophrenia.
Violent and dangerous are unfortunate negative stereotypes that persisted, Schulman said.
Dr. Michael Genovese, a Garden City psychiatrist, applauds the new program.
"Patients experiencing the early stages of schizophrenia have no idea where to start," Genovese said. "If they can get plugged into the mental health system early, this would help in a huge way.
"Schizophrenia is one of those disorders where there is so much stigma," Genovese said, adding that medication can control the symptoms allowing patients to lead productive lives.