The Skyland Trail Health and Education Center’s 30,000-square-foot campus includes a primary-care clinic, gym, art and music classrooms, life skills area, greenhouse and gardens, meditation pavilion, dining room, library and group meeting rooms.
The Skyland Trail Health and Education Center’s 30,000-square-foot campus includes a primary-care clinic, gym, art and music classrooms, life skills area, greenhouse and gardens, meditation pavilion, dining room, library and group meeting rooms.

The vibe around Skyland Trail feels more like a college campus than a center for treating mental illnesses, and a rise in young adult patients is shaping the mental health center’s future.

At Skyland’s campus on North Druid Hills Road in Brookhaven, patients sit in classrooms where they learn about life-coping skills. They call group therapy “class” and call counselors “teachers.” There are dorm-like residences located off-site and a cafeteria at the main campus. There’s even a community garden that provides the feeling of a quad, a shared green space where residents and their counselors can mingle.

There’s a fitness center and a primary-care doctor on site. Patients plant gardens. They paint. They make music. On May 3, the center will host Arts in the Garden, celebrating the creativity of people who have a mental illness.

“We have seen just a huge increase in referrals from college campuses across the country of young adults who are troubled, who are being sent home to get their mental health issues treated,” said Elizabeth Finnerty, president and CEO of Skyland Trail.

Skyland treats 300 to 400 patients each year, spokeswoman Shannon Easley said, and offers both residential and day-treatment programs. Its current operating budget is $10.5 million, and there is around $1 million in financial aid available for patients who qualify. Skyland is the business name of the George West Mental Health Foundation, a nonprofit.

Finnerty has the benefit of historical perspective, having been in charge of Skyland from its beginning in 1989. Back then, the center saw mostly older adults with disorders like schizophrenia, a condition where patients experience powerful delusions. Today, half of Skyland’s clients are young adults, age 18 to 25, and Finnerty said most are struggling with a mood disorder.

According to data provided by Skyland, 45 percent of patients are diagnosed as bipolar and 36 percent are diagnosed as depressed.

There are a number of factors behind the population shift, Finnerty said. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as Obamacare because it was President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, became law in 2010. Under the new law, parents can keep their children covered under their insurance plans until age 26. In 2010, 39 percent of Skyland’s admissions were 18 to 25 year olds. Today, 50 percent of admissions fall into this age group.

Finnerty said the change in the law has been one of the reasons Skyland is treating more college students.

“I think that certainly it has a hand in it,” Finnerty said. “That has been great for that population. It is great to treat them early on.”

Finnerty said students today are experiencing their first symptoms of mental illness when they move away to attend college. The signs begin to appear in the freshman and sophomore years, she said.

“When a young adult leaves home for the first time and they’re going off to college, they don’t have that structure and support that mom and dad have given them for so long,” Finnerty said. “For those who have poor coping mechanisms, or they’ve never really developed good coping mechanisms, being left to their own devices in a college environment is very stressful.”

The American Psychiatric Association, which supported the healthcare reforms, said the new healthcare law includes several changes that will benefit people who have mental illness or substance abuse problems. The ability of parents to keep their children on their insurance plans longer allows for the earlier diagnosis of mental illnesses that begin to develop in adolescence.

Under the law, insurers cannot exclude or discriminate against people with mental illness. It also establishes “parity” for all plans sold in federally-mandated health insurance exchanges, the APA says. The APA says parity means that healthcare coverage must be comparable to coverage for other medical benefits.

Finnerty said having more patients within the same age group has also improved their treatment at Skyland.

“We have young adults who walk in the door with backpacks,” Finnerty said. “I think that’s very interesting. That’s a normalizing environment for these young adults and what they also have is a great peer support system. They’re here with other young adults.”

As Skyland eyes expansion, increasing the capacity for young adult care has moved to the top of the priority list, Finnerty said.

Finnerty said that later this year Skyland will provide more details about a $12 million capital campaign to raise additional money for expansion. Finnerty said the plan includes increasing Skyland’s appeal to college-age patients.

“We’re going to add a specific young adult campus with 32 beds to meet the needs of this growing population,” Finnerty said.

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011-2014. He is the founder and editor of