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Cultivating Resilience before Mental Health Problems Begin
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Thu, May 31st 2012
Dr. Benjamin Van Voorhees is developing a vaccine against mental disorders. No, not the kind of vaccine that involves big, scary needles - this kind of vaccine is more creative.
It's a behavioral vaccine. That is, the medicine comes from a change in thinking and behavior.
Van Voorhees is the chief of general pediatrics at Children's Hospital at the University of Illinois. He wants to try to keep mental health problems at bay among kids who are already at risk. His theory is that by teaching children coping skills through a combination of online learning and traditional counseling, they will develop a resilience that will act as a buffer against mental disorders before their symptoms arise.
I love his focus on prevention and the fact that Van Voorhees compares his behavioral vaccine to a traditional vaccine that combats infections. In essence, he wants to stop mental health problems before they start, which among children at risk tends to fall between the ages of 13 and 17. Once an episode occurs - such as a major depressive episode - the chance of recurrent episodes increases over the lifetime.
Van Voorhees is not the only clinician trying to prevent depression and other debilitating disorders among at-risk youth. Several projects have emerged over the years focused on teaching healthy coping skills to kids and teens as a means of prevention as opposed to treatment of existing disorders.
For instance, Project CATCH-IT uses behavioral analysis, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy to reduce the risk of depression and other disorders among teenagers. It's been running for 10 years and is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among other organizations.
Also, the Chicago Urban Resiliency Building project (CURB), a spin-off of Project CATCH-IT, will start soon with the goal of cultivating resilience among black and Hispanic children who live in violent neighborhoods.
It's important to build resilience at a young age in order to stave off problems that may arise in young adulthood. But what about those who didn't have the emotional, behavioral, or environmental support to develop those skills at an early age? Is resiliency training still worthwhile?
According to the U.S. Army, absolutely. In addition to the article about Dr. Van Voorhees, I also recently read about a project called Army STARRS, which stands for the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members. The biggest study of mental health risk and resilience ever conducted among military personnel, the researchers want to identify factors that make soldiers more resilient and hence, help protect their mental health as well as factors that increase risk for mental health problems. With the knowledge gained from Army STARRS, programs can be developed to help develop resilience among soldiers before they deploy and encounter serious mental health risks and circumstances.
I'm very encouraged by the myriad projects underway in order to prevent mental health challenges before they start. What are your thoughts about cultivating resilience as a preventive measure? Would you be open to a behavioral vaccine?