A mission 20 years in the making
In 2014, I had the pleasure of seeing singer-songwriter Jewel perform as part of a spectacular day of fundraising at One Mind’s Music Festival for Brain Health in Napa, California. I was instantly transported back to my 17-year-old self, sitting with my brother in a San Diego coffee shop that served as our home away from home, watching Jewel sing her heart out while sipping caffeine-infused milkshakes. Captivated week after week by Jewel’s musical storytelling of her escape from a childhood spent in the Alaskan wilderness, my brother and I had no idea that life would imminently transform, thrusting our family into the untamed wild of the mental healthcare system.
Jewel would soon be discovered in the coffee shop, quickly becoming a Grammy-nominated artist, an abrupt change from living in her car, unable to afford bottled drinking water. My brother, a newly minted Marine, would soon begin acting strangely, pull away from his family and friends, and experience the first of many hospital stays, where he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Today, a lot has changed for the roughly 10 million Americans like my brother who are living with serious mental health challenges — but not nearly enough.
It is now well understood that mental illness is the chief health issue for teens and young adults:
1 in 5 teens are affected by a mental health condition. (NIH)
75% of mental illnesses manifest before age 24. Psychiatric disorders are the #1 disease burden for ages 10-24. (Kessler, 2005; WHO)
Untreated mental health problems put us at risk for a myriad of life threatening health issues, including suicide, the 2nd leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds in the United States. (CDC)
Oncologists don’t wait to see how stage 1 cancer progresses before starting treatment. In the same manner, we cannot afford to ignore ‘stage 1’ mental health concerns. This is especially true for young people, when mental illnesses present the greatest risks to long-term well-being, and at the same time, the greatest opportunity to interrupt the course of illness progression.
The kicker is that there haven’t been breakthrough treatments for mental health conditions in decades: In fact, for the most part, highly effective forms of treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy and comprehensive care programs already exist, but they are not accessible to most people due to a fragmented, under-funded health system in which cost and stigma stand in the way of too many people getting the care they need and deserve.
If I knew then what I know now, I might have been able to at least question whether changes in my brother’s behavior were related to changes in his brain, given a well-established history of mental illness in our family (that, like in most families, was rarely discussed). I would have understood the importance of treatment that aimed beyond simply muting my brother’s delusions and hallucinations, but also focused on regaining cognitive function and social skills – the things that would have allowed him to retain his identity, confidence and independence.
For my brother, becoming well enough to be discharged from the hospital meant that he was interested in living, and showed fewer outward symptoms. However, hospital discharge also came with heavy doses of medication that left him feeling numb, or, in his words, like he was “constantly drowning,” and included no follow-up care. It did not mean he was prepared to go to college, or apply for a job, or regain his friendships; nor did he believe that these things were possible, as we were repeatedly told by his many doctors that they were not.
Around the time our family’s journey began with psychosis, early treatment programs began spreading across Europe, Australia and Canada. Two decades later, the United States began to catch up, now with hundreds of early psychosis specialty care programs offered across the country. A 2015 landmark U.S. study underscores the benefits of early treatment for psychosis: significant improvement in symptoms, quality of life and increased involvement in work and school. Now that the clinical landscape is shifting, public awareness about psychosis and its treatability must drastically improve if we are to reach more young people in the early stages of a mental health crisis.
Today, we know better, and we must do better.
In a lot of ways, starting Strong365 makes me feel like my 17-year-old self all over again: I’m following a dream to align my work with my passion and building a platform to empower people to ask for – and be connected to – help and support. Walking away from a 15+ year corporate career to work toward brighter futures for young people has been a big, scary and continually life-affirming leap of faith. Thank you to this amazing community of young people and their families, advocates, scientists and change-makers for routinely reminding me what I’m here (at my desk, in this field, on this Earth) to do.
I hope you will join the Strong365 Community in taking action to ensure more young people get the right kind of care and support when it matters most.
“If I could tell the world just one thing It would be that we’re all OK And not to worry ’cause worry is wasteful And useless in times like these I won’t be made useless I won’t be idle with despair I will gather myself around my faith For light does the darkness most fear”