At Mental Health America (MHA), we are committed to making certain that public officials, the media, and the public understand that mental health conditions are concerns for public health – not public safety. For more than a century, we have promoted prevention for all, early identification and intervention for those at risk, and integrated health and behavioral health services and supports as a means toward promoting recovery. In other words, we want mental illnesses to be treated the same way we treat every other chronic disease and condition.
That’s not what usually happens. Typically, we wait until crises occur – until people present a “danger to themselves or others” – to act. This approach has made mental illnesses the only chronic diseases we wait until Stage 4 to treat. But it is time to act “B4Stage4”!
In 2014, MHA created an online screening program that members of the public could access anonymously and for free. Through our program, individuals can access evidence-based screening tools to assess their own mental health and get needed follow-up information and support. MHA offers this because we think that mental health screening should be accessible for everyone in the same way children receive vision and hearing screenings and adults receive blood pressure screenings. Yet few of us have any kind of mental health discussion during our regular well-care visits.
Response to the program was (and continues to be) overwhelming! More than two million people took an online screening in the program’s first two years, which enabled us to begin gathering data that could help us become even more effective in fight to identify and treat mental health conditions. For example, we learned that 75 percent of screeners were female, and that most screeners were under age 25. We also learned that two-thirds of screeners skewed “positive” or “moderate-to-severe” for the condition for which they screened, and that two-thirds of this cohort had never been diagnosed with a mental health condition before. We needed to dive deeper into the data, but were limited by inadequate computing power. That’s where IBM stepped in, and together we formed an invaluable partnership in service to those facing mental health challenges.
Enabled by a IBM Impact Grant, an IBM team met with us to understand what we wanted to learn about our screening population. They invited us to share a million responses with them, and then went about working with us to use their resources to do the analyses we needed. We had some answers within weeks.
Among the things we learned was that the first signs and symptoms of mental illnesses in young people are usually attention difficulties, anxiety and depression versus “acting out” or other types of behavioral problems. We learned that our female screeners experience deeper depression than males. And we learned that mental illness clusters are not usually geographic, even though our policies to treat mental illness often focus on geography.
The knowledge we have gained through our collaboration with IBM is changing the way we approach our work, and ask policymakers and practitioners to approach theirs. Our database is the largest in the nation that provides real clues to mental health concerns in a help-seeking population – even before people have been formally diagnosed.
By analyzing these clues and refining our approach to diagnosing and treating mental illness, we will transform people’s lives for the better. That’s what our partnership with IBM is all about.
Paul Gionfriddo is President and CEO of Mental Health America. Founded in 1909, Mental Health America (MHA) is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans.
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