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Pre-empting mental illness in children

Dr. Rudolf Uher’s research is making a difference on the lifelong impact of mental health by giving children the tools they need to counter issues like anxiety early on.

Foundation: Dr. Uher’s research project, Families Overcoming Risks and Building Opportunities for Well-Being, is a new way to look at pre-empting mental illness. It examines genetic “sensitivities” in families with parents who have existing mental illnesses. Over the course of the next 10 years, Dr. Uher and his team will closely follow 300 children and adolescents to determine their susceptibility to three major mental illnesses: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

Inspiration: Throughout his career, Dr. Uher has mainly worked with adults. Many are parents who become concerned when they see some early warning signs of mental illness in their children. “They know that mental illness or the disposition to it runs in families. And some of them see some early signs, and say, ‘Oh, he’s just like me’ or ‘She’s just like me’ and are worried he or she will also develop this disease.”

In his words: “It was early on in my career when I realized that the mental side of health was so powerful that it will override everything else. This is really the core puzzle we need to solve now to improve the health of the whole population.”

Why it matters: In addition to the impact these mental illnesses have on people’s lives, there’s a financial price tag as well: these three major mental illnesses cost Canada more than all cancers combined. By identifying mental illness early on, treatment can begin earlier, providing a greater chance of altering a person’s life trajectory.