A Tucson hospital is offering a new early-intervention program for mental illness that could help prevent future Jared Lee Loughners.

The pioneering program at University Physicians Hospital, formerly known as Kino Hospital, serves young adults in the early stages of illnesses that involve psychosis, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Catching such illnesses early, when symptoms such as paranoia and delusions first start to arise, can prevent the downward spiral of mental deterioration that can lead to ruined lives, said Nicholas Breitborde, a psychologist who set up the program, known as the Early Psychosis Intervention Center.

The treatment-and-research effort is the only one of its type in Arizona and one of just a few nationwide. It's modeled on a similar setup run by Yale University, where Breitborde worked before coming to Tucson in 2009.

"The majority of the functional deterioration that accompanies psychotic disorders appears to occur within the first five years after the onset of psychotic symptoms," Breitborde said.

"Intervention during this 'critical period' has the potential to prevent and/or delay much of the deterioration."

The program is designed to be accessible to anyone who needs it, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.

"It's set up so that money should no way be a barrier," Breitborde said. "We will bend over backwards to make finances not be an issue."

Begun less than a year ago, the program has 11 participants so far and can accommodate many more, Breitborde said.

Hospital officials decided to publicize it more widely in response to the recent shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that left six dead and 13 wounded.

Many who knew Loughner, the 22-year-old suspect in the attack, noted his bizarre behavior and thinking, including delusions and hallucinations, paranoia, and incoherent speech and writing. Mental-health experts say those symptoms are hallmarks of schizophrenia, though it isn't clear whether Loughner has ever been diagnosed with or treated for mental illness.

Experts stress that most mentally ill people are not violent.

The new program, which is funded with grants, is open to adults ages 18 to 35, a window in which serious mental illness often starts to manifest.

Many of the clients now enrolled are working or in school, and have friends and social support, Breitborde said. They sought help soon after they started to experience disturbing events such as withdrawal, hallucinations, disorganized thinking or difficulties in the workplace or classroom.

The program offers aid that is different from the more typical regimen of medication and psychiatrist visits, he said.

Clients can pick from a menu of services, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, aimed at correcting problematic thinking and actions; and cognitive remediation, a form of brain training used to help stroke victims strengthen their attention spans, memory and thinking skills.

Another part of the program focuses on families, providing support and teaching strategies for coping with a loved one's mental illness.

H. Clarke Romans, executive director of the Southern Arizona chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, gives the new program high marks.

"I think it's terrific," Romans said. "It recognizes that the sooner you get treatment, and the more comprehensive the treatment, the better."

Breitborde said that in addition to alleviating suffering, such programs also makes good financial sense.

Cost-effectiveness studies suggest that a small hospital serving 100,000 people could save about $4 million over a 20-year period by adding such offerings, he said.

Extrapolating those figures to Arizona, he said, the state funded medical system could save as much as $155 million over 20 years from fewer hospitalizations and relapses of symptoms.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.