In need of some H.U.G.S.: Program helps father, daughter overcome mental health issues

Editor’s note: One in a series of stories about the annual Naples Winter Wine Festival, scheduled for this week, and how it benefits Collier County children and charities.

Without Collier H.U.G.S., Robert Norcross knows he would be living a different life.

He and the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, Riley, are separated. A year and a half ago, Riley was removed from her mother’s care and placed into the foster care system; Norcross, despite his efforts, has not been able to legally reunite with her, he said. Since her initial placement, Riley has been in a total of six different foster homes.

Then, last year, Norcross was diagnosed with chronic depression. That’s when the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Collier County (NAMI) became involved and Norcross was introduced to the Collier Health Under Guided Systems — Collier H.U.G.S.

“My daughter and I are fighting to be together,” Norcross said. “We love each other and want to be together. NAMI and the programs have been there to help us.”

The Collier H.U.G.S. project is financed through the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF), which is hosting the 11th annual Naples Winter Wine Festival this week. Proceeds from the festival go toward organizations such as Collier H.U.G.S. The NCEF has an ongoing effort to bridge gaps in service for juvenile welfare in Collier County, and it was realized as early as 2005 that one of these major gaps was mental health for children and families.

The resulting Collier H.U.G.S. project seeks to fill the mental health void in numerous ways. By targeting vulnerable children and their families, the project provides education and early identification of mental health problems in health and childcare settings. Age appropriate questionnaires are used to screen children and determine who might be at risk.

The project culminates with specialized guidance and peer support to help families find needed services. In part, what is making Collier H.U.G.S. an early success is its accessibility and peer support, explains Kathryn Hunter, NAMI’s executive director.

By bringing a small, specially-outfitted recreational vehicle to Collier Health Services in Immokalee and other local sites on a regular basis, the Collier H.U.G.S. project is able to bring the program and its mental health assessments to the community — not wait for the community to come to them, when it may be too late. According to national figures, 20 percent of children have a diagnosable mental illness; with 80,000 children in Collier County, that’s an estimated 16,000 children who could be at risk.

It’s not uncommon for family members to realize early on that their child has mental health issues, Hunter said.

“They always say, I knew something was wrong from the very beginning,” she said.

Also, since there is often a stigma attached to mental health issues, especially in the Hispanic community, the Collier H.U.G.S. project also seeks to dispel myths and fears. The “Breaking the Silence” campaign works with more than 1,000 children in partnership with NCEF beneficiaries and Collier County United Way member agencies.

Early feedback is positive, Hunter said.

“We are having young people, after listening to the program, saying ‘I would like to follow up,’” she said. “They do know that it’s OK to ask for help.”

Since July, 1,400 children have been influenced by Collier H.U.G.S. through all the project’s programs, including the screening questionnaires and Breaking the Silence. Almost 900 children and teens have been screened using the questionnaires; of those, 149 have been identified as needing follow up.

The Collier H.U.G.S. project represents a step forward in the way local mental health providers and support agencies work together in Collier County, Hunter explained.

“That’s what’s unique at the end of the day,” she said. “You have all these providers talking to each other, engaging the families. They want to help, saying what can we do for you. And we’re making that happen.”

Norcross’ experience is an example of this: After his diagnosis, NAMI became involved. A Collier H.U.G.S. system navigator — one of the project’s peer-driven support roles created to provide a single point of access and coordinate care and education — helped Norcross connect with the David Lawrence Center to begin his medication management. Youth Haven helped him with his housing situation, and NAMI put him to work.

Finally, Collier Health Services provided a neurological workup for Riley and she was screened using the Collier H.U.G.S. assessment. Norcross said she has been diagnosed as having post traumatic stress disorder and reactive attachment disorder. Last week, she began play therapy at Youth Haven.

“I’ve been fighting to get her diagnosed with stuff like that for the last year, and it finally happened,” he said. “Now, I can get her the help I need.”

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E-mail Elizabeth Kellar at liz@elizabethkellar.com.

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COMPLETE COVERAGE: Find archived videos, photos and stories about previous Naples Winter Wine Festivals in our special section »

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