By Robin Wiest Littlefield, Coastal Growers Magazine

Where do you send your resources to fight cancer? The American Cancer Society. How about disaster relief? The Red Cross. Ask Americans how they might donate funds to address mental illness, and they draw a blank. There is no nationally recognizable organization that raises funds for clinical research for diseases of the brain, even though mental illness affects one in four adults. It is also estimated that 17.1 million children have a mental health disorder, more than those with cancer and diabetes combined.

A fledging charitable organization right here on the Monterey Peninsula hopes to fill that void, for our most vulnerable population: children, teens and young adults. This program is called AIM for Mental Health.

Thanks to one enterprising family, a generous foundation, and a community with a big heart, AIM is well on its way.

Since its inception in mid 2014, AIM has raised more than $1 million for clinical research into treatment and cures of mental health disorders in youth. Of this, more than half is already at work in clinical research at UCLA and the University of Washington. A grant of $250,000 for research into teen depression and anxiety is in progress.

Susan Stilwell, an attorney and owner of local inns, founded AIM with her husband, Mark, and their three teenage children. Like many families, philanthropy and volunteering had long been part of their everyday life, but none of the accessible charities focused on mental illness. Together, the Stilwells formed AIM under the experienced wings of the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO) based in Napa Valley, and started reaching out to friends.

A first fundraising dinner during the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, CA was so successful that word spread, and the following year the Pebble Beach Company donated the use of its elegant hospitality tent in the Parc du Concours for a Thursday night event. Attendance grew and donations swelled. The Monterey Peninsula sent a strong signal that finding better treatment and cures for mental health in children and teens is a community priority.

This year’s “AIM for the Cures” dinner will again take place during the Concours, on August 18, and AIM seeks to fill all 850 seats. For the first time, businesses and foundations are being asked to be sponsors, and the response has been heartening, as it has become increasingly apparent that most families have been touched in some way by mental illness. Part of Stilwell’s due diligence in establishing AIM’s goals and mission has been to seek input from practicing doctors and clinical researchers around the nation, and even the United Kingdom. At the Kennedy Forum on Mental Health in Boston last June, Martin Luther King III declared that, “Mental health is the civil rights movement of today.”

King and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy reinforced the huge gap between the magnitude of the mental health epidemic and the resources devoted to treatment and cures, as well educating parents and children about their options. AIM seeks to drive the movement needed to force national attention on children’s mental health, particularly at a time when brain research has evolved substantially and merely needs the financial resources to get to work.

AIM is not an acronym but a forward thinking word, positive and goal-oriented. The organization targets all youth mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, ADHD, bipolar and related disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s, neurodevelopmental disorders, OCD and related disorders, conduct disorders, substance abuse and addictive disorders, trauma and stressor related disorders. AIMs focus is so broad because brain disorders overlap. Research into one disorder may find answers that help other disorders.

Besides raising funds for research, AIM raises community awareness about mental health disorders and the options for treatment, in order to address the stigma that discourages open discussion and public support. To that end, AIM organizes an annual walk/rally at Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove in the fall. In a festive environment with music and speakers, area mental health providers set up booths to distribute information and speak one-on-one, while AIM provides breakfast and leads a march to and from the Monterey Aquarium, in solidarity with all those individuals and families grappling with mental illness.

One participant in last year’s rainy walk wrote to thank AIM for the chance to walk alongside her child and show him that she and the hundreds of people beside him cared about his condition. AIM expects participation in the October 23 walk to triple, as public and private schools are organizing student ambassadors to encourage classmates to attend with their families.

AIM believes so strongly that public displays of support are essential to battling stigma, walks are being organized at colleges and universities, starting with the first at USC September 29 and at UCLA later in the fall. AIM chapters are already forming in Los Angeles and Stockton.

AIM’s mission is simple: to build a movement to fund clinical research to find cures for mental health disorders in youth. Based on the Stilwells’ interviews with top clinicians around the country, the most effective way to combat mental illness in general is through early intervention and prevention in children, teens and young adults. As Susan puts it, “They are not only the most at-risk and vulnerable, but also the most likely to experience a positive life-altering outcome if treated early. I also knew that, given the contagious enthusiasm of youth, if we could get our message out to kids, to engage and educate them about the mental challenges, that many of them and their peers are suffering, we could reduce the stigma and build a movement that could change the course of mental health in our lifetime.”