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Mental Health Focus on Campaign Trail Is a Major Step

The recent explosion in public statements about mental health and the importance of studying and understanding brain-based illness is encouraging. And it needs to go further.
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Last night at a Town Hall in South Carolina, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush answered a question about drug use and abuse with a broader appeal. "We ought to have a focus on the brain," he said. "You think about the challenges that play out in our society, all of these things relate to the brain." Gov. Bush mentioned addiction, and Alzheimer's. I'd like to add mental health and learning disorders to that list.

Just this past week the Duchess of Cambridge guest edited the Huffington Post UK with a focus on children's mental health, and First Lady Michelle Obama wrote that we must "change the conversation around mental health." With better awareness and education, Mrs. Obama wrote, "we can help the people we know get the help they need before it's too late."

This explosion in public statements about mental health and the importance of studying and understanding brain-based illness is encouraging. And it needs to go further. All of the presidential candidates should be talking about how, with a commitment to understanding the brain, we can help so many people of any age struggling with emotional and behavioral disorders. At the Child Mind Institute, we believe that focusing on children and the developing brain is the surest way to increase the pace of discovery and transform lives.

To that end, in 2015 the Child Mind Institute launched the Healthy Brain Network to pursue a bold goal: to seek out biological markers of mental health disorders in the developing brain. Other fields of medicine have objective tests to diagnose disease, but psychologists and psychiatrists must rely on observation, along with patient and family reports, to identify and treat mental health disorders. One in five children struggles with a mental health or learning disorder, and objective tests will fundamentally change the way clinicians evaluate these children and design and assess treatment plans.

Over the next five years, the Healthy Brain Network will provide free diagnostic mental health consultations and treatment recommendations to 10,000 children and adolescents in New York City, all the while collecting brain scans and other data to advance our understanding of the biology of mental illness.

Unlike other research efforts where data is held until papers are published, or longer, the Healthy Brain Network will share its results with researchers around the world using what's called "open science." Studies like this that use large data sets and open science are helping drive a fundamental shift in how research is conducted in developmental neuroscience. And with New York's diverse population and data shared with researchers around the globe, the hope is that this effort will uncover the biological factors contributing to mental health and learning disorders.

The scope of this study is unprecedented because the scale of the problem is unprecedented. There are 17 million children in this country who have or have had a psychiatric illness, and we feel a tremendous sense of urgency to advance the science of the developing brain to help these children. A commitment to understanding the brain, as Gov. Bush advocates, will also have another result: it will destigmatize mental health disorders, and encourage open conversation.

We rarely speak about mental health, especially among children, even though millions of young adults experience the pain of a psychiatric disorder. And that's important, because of the costs of not talking. Ignored and untreated, early mental health disorders leaves children and adolescents at a higher risk for academic failure, school dropout, alcohol and substance abuse, entering the juvenile justice system and even suicide.

We all need to understand that pressure, and send the message that it is okay to seek help. We still have a long way to go in addressing our collective discomfort in talking about mental health, but every time a public figure speaks openly about helping others, about pushing the science forward and finding the biological causes, we get one step closer.

We need resources and more specialists with expertise to make care more available. We need more and better research to create the treatments of tomorrow. But a lot of what we need starts with you and me, in our personal acceptance and honesty and openness in talking about mental illness with our families, our friends, and with other parents who may be struggling.

The most exciting outcome of the Healthy Brain Network will be its potential to transform the lives of children who struggle with mental health or learning disorders every day. We know that mental health and learning disorders are real, common and treatable. But we must do more. Accelerating the pace of discovery is essential to helping our children reach their full potential, and to find meaning and joy in their lives. And talking openly, like Governor Bush, the Duchess, and the First Lady are doing, is a great way to jumpstart this process. I hope other public figures see what they have done, and join them.