Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 26, 2007
It's not at all typical for a 27-year-old man to enlist Buster the Bunny and Peter the Penguin to facilitate conversations with his mother.
But Jan Kyas can tell his plush go-betweens things he finds it hard to say directly to people. His mother, Jirina Kyas, has embraced this communion; she talks to them as well when speaking right to her son doesn't work.
A former high school percussionist and Santa Monica College graduate, the young man learned as an adult that he suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulties with social and communication skills, and the often attendant depression and anxiety. He carries the stuffed animals in his backpack.
Kyas has no qualms about trotting out his inanimate menagerie when he visits Daniel's Place, a Santa Monica support center for mentally ill young adults and their families. Other participants don't bat an eye in the center's group room, the walls of which are plastered with their original drawings.
After all, these are people who all have their own ways of coping. Sometimes it's growing a dramatically spiked mohawk. Sometimes it's singing the oldies on a karaoke machine. Sometimes, amazingly, it's using humor. Despite enduring frightening psychotic breaks and the vagaries of medication, the participants at Daniel's Place saw fit to dub a furry white mascot "Bipolar Bear."
Daniel's Place provides support, education and information about available services to adults 18 to 30 and their families. It also connects families as they struggle with issues related to mental illness, primarily bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenic disorders. The program has served hundreds of young adults and has 79 active cases, said Emily James, team leader and program director.
Many of the young people referred to the center are experiencing their first episodes of mental illness. Their families, meanwhile, are suddenly having to grapple with their children's bewildering behavior.
For many of the young adults, Daniel's Place is a home away from home -- or the closest thing to a home that they have. They can play and listen to music, take cooking classes, use a computer and chat.
"Daniel's Place gives young adults a safe place in which to understand the implications of having a mental illness while pursuing recovery, wellness and their goals," said Robin Kay, acting chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
Daniel's Place was initially funded by Arthur Greenberg, a founding partner of the Los Angeles law firm Greenberg Glusker, and his wife, Audrey. The program is named for their son Daniel, who was born in 1959. He attended Harvard School for Boys, acted, played football and graduated from Princeton.
While in college, Daniel had his first psychotic break. Thanks to treatment and medication, he was able to finish school. He then spent several years at Step Up on Second, first as a client and then as a caseworker and outreach worker.
But Daniel continued to struggle with his illness, and it ultimately led to his suicide in 1997.
"He touched the lives of many other people isolated by their illness and got them connected to Step Up," said Tod Lipka, chief executive and president of Step Up on Second.
Susan Dempsay, the retired executive director of Step Up on Second, encouraged the Greenbergs to provide the seed money for a separate program for young people. Her son, Mark Klemperer, 47, had known Daniel Greenberg in elementary school. Klemperer, the son of actor Werner Klemperer and the grandson of composer-conductor Otto Klemperer, suffered a mental break in high school and, Dempsay said, has been homeless many times since.
"Daniel's Place was, I have to say, a first in Los Angeles and almost a first in the country," Dempsay said. "People were not paying attention to this young group."
Matt Lord, 28, said he feels that Daniel's Place helped save his life. While at the University of Florida, he started slipping into depression. "When I was awake, I seemed alone even when I was with people," Lord said. "My life was narrated by thoughts that weren't mine."
He drifted in and out of mental hospitals and lived in a rough "board and care" home. Eventually, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (a condition with characteristics of both schizophrenia and a mood disorder) and bipolar disorder. A county caseworker referred him to Daniel's Place.
"Another guy in my peer group talked about the TV talking to him," said Lord, who sports long dark hair and a goatee. "It opened the gate. I had that too. It was a supportive network." Lord now takes several medications to manage his illness and works as an assistant at the center.
"It's a cozy, safe environment," he said. "It bursts with hope and understanding."
That has been the case for Jan Kyas and his mother. They first sought the center's help in 2005 after Jan (pronounced Yahn) had a bad reaction to an antidepressant and spent every night walking around the house because he could not sleep. Fearful of his erratic behavior, his mother hid all the kitchen knives.
Since beginning sessions at the center, Jan has felt comfortable and accepted, Jirina Kyas said. She and other mothers have formed a support group. A Buddhist chanting group started by Clare Lowenau, whose daughter has schizoaffective disorder, helped Jan open up to the point that he now sings and leads discussions of fiction and poetry.
Whenever Jirina Kyas has trouble communicating with her son, Buster the Bunny comes out.
"Hey, Buster, can you tell Jan that I need to talk to him?" she told the slightly worn stuffed animal as she held it on her lap one recent afternoon in the group room.
Jirina Kyas said Jan carries the animals everywhere. "They keep us company when we watch TV, lined up on top of the sofa," she said. "They eat lunch with us."
Daniel's Place has had a profound effect on her and her son. When he decided to attend Santa Monica College, she joined him. She is now a research scholar at UCLA, where she has studied play therapy, among other subjects.
The center's success stories have won attention. Los Angeles County recently provided a $125,000 grant that will be used to expand the center's hours and services.
Further expanding its mission, Daniel's Place is slated to open its first permanent supportive housing next fall. The $2.4-million project will transform a vacant motel on Santa Monica Boulevard into Daniel's Village, with eight units for mentally ill young people.
"We know for people with mental illness that permanent supportive housing is the answer," Lipka said. "Daniel's Village will provide the opportunity to get that needed support early on, as well as develop independent living skills such as shopping, budgeting money and paying bills."
Getting a diagnosis of mental illness does not doom a young adult to a lifelong struggle, Lipka said. Daniel's Place, he said, is about "encouraging the person to take over the management of their illness. You can lead a life of self-sufficiency."