New Ann Arbor nonprofit offers virtual mental health programming for young adults

After their son Garrett died from suicide at age 23 in 2017, Ann Arbor residents Julie and Scott Halpert felt called to do something that would, as they put it, "honor his goodness."
After their son Garrett died from suicide at age 23 in 2017, Ann Arbor residents Julie and Scott Halpert felt called to do something that would, as they put it, "honor his goodness." One day, while visiting his gravesite, the vision for a residential healing center — based in nature, with gardens and walking trails — came to mind. 

"When we started out, we were told, 'You need to start helping people right now,'" Julie Halpert recalls. "And that's when we came up with the idea for wellness programming."
Julie Halpert.
Since conceiving of the initial plan for their nonprofit, Garrett's Space, the couple has forged a partnership with the University of Michigan's Eisenberg Family Depression Center, and engaged a board and staff of clinicians and mental health professionals from across the community. While a physical center is a couple of years away from being built, the nonprofit began offering a slate of virtual programming in April.

"We realized there was a huge gap in care for young adults who are struggling," Julie Halpert says. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents in America today. 

"It was already really horrible, but obviously the pandemic made it worse, because young adults are more isolated," Julie Halpert says.

Board members Jamie Abelson, a licensed clinician who has a master's degree in social work; and Lindsay Bornheimer, who has a doctorate in social work and is on faculty at the University of Michigan, are among those who helped devise programs that would provide various aspects of holistic support. 

"Members of our program committee were trying to think, 'What can we put in place that would help a young person who has been in the hospital? How can we help them transition to feeling more adequate?'" Abelson recalls. She notes that the development of their approach took a year. "We wanted to make sure we had it right, because you don't take risks with this population."

On Mondays, a peer-led support group offers space for young adults who have been struggling. "Mood and Movement," which draws on yoga and dance techniques to integrate feelings and the physical body, meets on Wednesdays. The week wraps up with an opportunity to forge social connections and have fun. In addition to specialized group leaders, each session is overseen by a registered clinician. 

Since April, 10 participants have already benefited. While sessions are virtual for now, due to the pandemic, there is hope of meeting in person down the road. Until then, the virtual groups have provided unexpected benefits. For some participants, the format makes it more convenient to attend, and more inviting for those who may be shy. To make the care as accessible as possible, sessions are free and held in the evenings, to accommodate work schedules.

The holistic programming Garrett's Space provides is not meant to replace treatment — such as regular visits to a mental health provider — but to augment it.

"This time [in participants' lives] is one of great transition — from high school to college, and into the real world. Often young adults don't have the support of their peers, and often they're not living with their parents. They can feel quite alone," Julie Halpert says. "We felt like there wasn't anything available in our community, and in many communities, for young adults who need something more than once- or twice-a-week visits to their therapist, but they're not actively suicidal and don't warrant admission to the ER."

"Adding a layer of support, positivity, and tools that people can engage with can sometimes be more helpful than just medication or just traditional therapy," says Bornheimer, whose research is in suicide prevention. "It's meant to be an add-on. In our world of behavioral health treatment, that's often missing. A lot of times, things that are framed as wellness are not part of the picture. Our hope is to make that more accessible."

In addition to programming for young adult participants, Garrett's Space intends to provide training to equip family and community members with skills to help those in need. The "Your Support Team" model, currently in its research phase, will enable participants to nominate individuals in their social network to be trained to provide support.

"Always in the back of my mind is the question [of] whether this would have helped our son,"  Scott Halpert says. "And that's really how we're thinking about our programming. Is this the type of thing — creating additional connections and support — that would have helped Garrett? And will it help other young adults?"
Scott Halpert.
"We envision this as rehab and reset for mental health issues," Julie Halpert says. "We want to reach young adults and let them know they are not alone. And we also want them to develop some healthy coping skills for living in what is becoming an increasingly complicated and troublesome world."

On Sept. 3-4, Garrett's Space will host a 24-hour virtual fundraiser to raise money for its wellness programming and residential center. Information on the event, which will feature CNN Senior Political Commentator David Axelrod, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and Broadway performers, is available at www.garrettsspace.org.

Programming offered by Garrett's Space is free and open to young adults ages 18-28 in need. Visit Garrett's Space's website to learn more. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255. 

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.

All photos by Doug Coombe.