Congressional Neuroscience Caucus Focuses on Mental Illness and Violence
Brain research can be a key to addressing mental health issues and helping to prevent violence that results from lack of treatment, according to speakers at “The Science of Mental Illness: Correlations Between Mental Illness and Violence,” a briefing hosted by the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus and sponsored by the American Brain Coalition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Society for Neuroscience.
“We need to think of these not as mental disorders, but as brain disorders,” said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “By dealing with serious mental illness in terms of the brain, we achieve the best outcomes.”
The briefing was attended by dozens of Congressional staff and policymakers and featured remarks by Insel; Elizabeth Childs, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in Boston; and Raquel Gur, director of the University of Pennsylvania Schizophrenia Research Center.
The Congressional Neuroscience Caucus is one of many bipartisan caucuses, or working groups, within the U.S. Congress. Members of the Neuroscience Caucus promote Congressional awareness of neuroscience research and findings, and develop and promote legislation to advance neuroscience research. Caucus co-chairs are Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).
The caucus briefing speakers suggested that early detection of behavioral problems can save lives in cases such as recent mass shootings committed by young male teens. Evidence of psychotic behavior is often present in these cases, they noted, but the young men were not appropriately treated. The panel focused on brain research showing that psychosis produces subtle changes in the brain that lead to behavioral changes in children as young as 5. If that unusual behavior is recognized and identified as mental illness, they said, children can begin treatment that helps them avoid potentially violent behavior and keeps the disease from progressing during development into young adulthood. Insel posted additional information on the science underlying the development of psychotic behavior on his blog.
“Individuals with psychotic mental illness are at a fifteen times greater risk of violence before treatment than after,” said Insel. “If we want to prevent Sandy Hook, we need to improve detection of psychotic mental illness.”
“Untreated conditions have terrible outcomes,” agreed Childs. “Often, if we don’t see acute danger, we don’t get help. Patients, families, and treaters are often in denial. We need to work together for a cohesive mental health treatment system so that we can all identify and triage problems early in a young person’s life.”
Childs noted that the mental health system in the United States is fragmented and the stigma around mental illness prevents many from seeking help. Gur agreed. “We need early intervention and multiple complimentary approaches to address these problems with families,” she said.