What is the mission of AIM Youth Mental Health?

AIM Youth Mental Health is bridging the gap between research and access to care for youth struggling with their mental health by finding and implementing evidence-based treatments, empowering youth to discover their own mental health solutions, and training caring adults to create a safe holding place for youth in crisis. Our vision is simple: a world of mentally healthy youth.

​Our vision is simple: a world of mentally healthy youth.

What does AIM do?

We AIM to Bridge the gap between research and practice: AIM’s investments in Clinical Science and Equity – Implementation Grants have discovered groundbreaking youth mental health solutions. Among them: early interventions for treating anxiety in preschoolerspredicting suicide, and family-centered approaches to support teens with eating disorders. Now, with this body of knowledge, AIM is focusing on taking tested treatments out of the lab and into communities where and when youth need it.

We AIM to Empower Youth: The AIM Ideas Lab trains high school students to design and conduct their own scientific peer-to-peer youth mental health surveys, analyze their findings, and make recommendations for youth-driven solutions. In the 2022 Monterey County, CA pilot, the youth researchers discovered that teens lack an adult in their lives they trust enough to go to when they have a mental health challenge or crisis. The sad truth is that we know that the #1 protective factor for youth mental health is a trusted adult.

We AIM to train adults to support youth: AIM trains adults in youth mental health first aid – teachers, parents, police officers, nurses, and coffee shop baristas -toward the vision that every child and teen would have not only a trusted adult to go to, but also an adult who is trained with skills and knowledge about what to do and what to say. Someone to support them during the time it takes to access professional treatment.

We AIM to complete the circle of care: When that trusted adult – trained as a mental health first aider – helps a youth find treatment, we AIM to complete the circle and ensure that the clinician is trained with evidence-based tools to treat the specific mental health challenge the young person is suffering.

We AIM to create communities where children, teens, and young adults can thrive and grow into healthy, happy adults.

What are AIM's guiding principles?

  1. Fund research that leads to better treatments today.
  2. Challenge existing conventions as the status quo is failing our children.
  3. Focus on youth as 75% of mental illness begins in adolescence.
  4. Concentrate on early intervention and prevention.
  5. Educate that solutions will be found through science and that investing in research is critical.
  6. Take evidence-based solutions to the front-lines where youth are being treated.
  7. Work with the best and brightest doctors from around the world.
  8. Engage youth with lived experiences to help guide the research.
  9. Streamline the granting process as top clinical researchers can spend 50% of their time writing grant applications when they should be working with our children.
  10. Raise awareness through community programs that are positive and free from stigma.

What mental challenges is AIM focusing on?

AIM funds research to find better treatments and cures for any and all youth mental health challenges including ADHD, anxiety, depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic diagnoses, personality disorders, the autism spectrum, asperger’s syndrome and neurodevelopment barriers, tourette syndrome, OCD and related challenges, conduct disorders, trauma and stressor related symptoms, etc.

AIM also funds research for the bi-products of some of these brain differences including eating disorders, addiction, substance abuse, and suicide.

Why is AIM’s focus as broad as it is?

Two reasons:

  1. AIM is creating a movement not only to fund research, but to raise awareness for all mental health challenges that need more study.
  2. Differences of the mind overlap. Research into one issue often helps discover answers in others.*

What age group is AIM’s focus?

Symptoms and behaviors associated with mental and developmental disorders are most often manifested in childhood through young adulthood, so AIM considers “youth” to be up to 26 years old. Current research suggests that the brain has its most plasticity until a person’s mid-20s, underlining the need for early intervention.

What does AIM stand for?

AIM is not an acronym but a positive, forward-thinking word that is easy to remember!

Where and When did AIM start?

AIM was founded on the Monterey Peninsula, California in 2014.

Who founded AIM and why?

Susan Stilwell and her family founded AIM to fill a tremendous void in our society. Susan learned about mental illness as a young girl when she tried to help her mother, who suffered from anxiety and phobias. The lack of good solutions left Susan determined to help others with mental health struggles.

Susan and her daughter, Sydney, were members of the National Charity League. It dawned on them while volunteering for numerous non-profits that not one of the charities focused on youth mental health, despite the fact it is estimated that 1 in 4 youth today face mental challenges, and that number is growing. When asked, “If you want to help find cures for kids’ mental health disorders, where do you donate?” most people pause and can’t think of an answer.

What are AIM’s accomplishments to date?

In a very short period of time, AIM has touched thousands of lives. Beyond research, the AIM for Awareness Walk & Rally along the coastline of Pacific Grove and the AIM for Awareness Rally at USC, the annual AIM for Awareness Ad Contest is growing, and reaching into more schools. In May of 2019, AIM launched its first AIM for Awareness Scientific Symposium. AIM will continue to grow in its passionate pursuit of raising awareness for youth mental health.

We are just getting started.

Is AIM a nonprofit and can I deduct my donations to AIM?

Yes, all donations to AIM since its founding in 2014 are tax deductible. In July 2016, AIM for Mental Health received its nonprofit status as a public charity and its own federal tax ID number as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Prior to operating under its own public charity status, AIM was a charitable campaign under the fiscal sponsorship of the International Mental Health Research Organization (“IMHRO”), now called One Mind Institute, which has its own tax ID.

Who decides where my donations go?

AIM’s strategic investments in youth mental health research is guided by a renowned Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) comprised of experts from the UK, US and Australia. Our SAB strategizes the most effective ways to fund research to help youth today. They are working to develop models for training clinicians to implement evidence-based treatments in real-world settings where children receive care. A consistent goal of our research is to find answers to provide better treatments now.

What is a Rising Star and who has AIM funded to date?

A Rising Star is an emerging leader in brain research who has a cutting-edge research proposal. AIM’s Board of Directors defines the type of research that we would like to fund. The Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) sends out a request for proposals to researchers at many research institutions/universities and then awards a Rising Star Award to the project that the SAB feels is the most worthwhile. Each Rising Star receives $250,000 over a 3-year period to fund their studies.

In August 2016, AIM awarded a Rising Star Award to Dr. Kate Fitzgerald, from the University of Michigan, who is testing the neurobiological and behavioral effects of an original psychosocial treatment aimed to strengthen effortful control, a cognitive skill that may help remedy clinical anxiety in preschoolers.

Previously, AIM disbursed $180,000 to UCLA’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, which studies the brain and neuropsychiatric disorders in children and adults using advanced brain imaging, specifically functional and structural MRI. AIM funds have supported several new projects and provided seed money for future federal grants. MRI-based research, directly fueled by AIM, includes studies into understanding the sensory hypersensitivity of children with anxiety and autism to better inform treatment, a pilot program to examine the unique brain chemistry of patients with schizophrenia which may lead to new pharmacological approaches, and a study to measure the effectiveness of cognitive training in methamphetamine abusers. The UCLA Center, dedicated to identifying risks for mental illness and new preventative treatments, also used AIM funds for a study of adolescents at high risk for developing psychosis, to identify early changes in social responsiveness. These results will be submitted to the NIH for a larger grant. Lastly, the AIM grant funded a pilot project to better understand how the brains of those vulnerable to depression respond to cognitive behavioral therapy and how this treatment normalizes the brain’s response.

AIM has also funded a Rising Star Award in the amount of $250,000 to Katie McLaughlin, a Ph.D. and Assistant Professor at the University of Washington. Her project will examine, for the first time, how stressful life events (SLE’s) cause changes in the emotions, behaviors, and physiology of children, including the linkage between SLEs and anxiety and depression. The goal of her research is to identify new interventions for kids who are affected by SLE’s to try to prevent the onset of anxiety and depression. Katie is a cutting-edge researcher with degrees from Virginia, Penn, Yale, and Harvard, and we are excited to provide her with the financial support she needs to continue her research.

What is clinical research?

AIM is committed to human research and will not fund any research on animals. Clinical research is a branch of healthcare science that determines the safety and effectiveness (efficacy) of medications, devices, diagnostic products and treatment regimens intended for human use. These may be used for prevention, treatment, diagnosis or for relieving symptoms of a disease.

Why is clinical brain research needed?

The clinical psychologists and psychiatrists who are on the front lines with kids have told us that there are many unfunded research projects that, if funded, would lead to better treatments and possibly cures in the short-term. We AIM to help kids NOW.

Here are quotes from several top clinical doctors explaining the validity of clinical research:

“In medicine and particularly in mental health, funding is urgently needed for both 1. basic science, the understanding of the inner workings of cells (including neurons) and the unfathomable complexity of the brain, and 2. clinical science, which deals with developing (and disseminating) evidence-based treatments for a range of disorders and conditions.

Back in the early 1970s Nixon declared a war on cancer, which was criticized because how could cancer be conquered if there wasn’t even fundamental knowledge, at that time, about cell division, cell proliferation, and cell death. Arguably, now–with greater knowledge–clinical science can be promoted to battle cancer (but we still don’t know all the relevant processes).

What about conquering mental illness clinically now? Some would argue that it’s too early, as we still don’t know enough about the brain and about mind-body connections. True, but on the other hand, today’s evidence-based treatments for child, adolescent, and adult forms of mental illness do work–providing effects that, on average, are on par with the effects of most treatments for medical conditions. Alas, there are no cures yet for mental illness — but there are not, either, for chronic, multifactorial illnesses, either (coronary disease, cancers, Alzheimer’s, etc.). And it is a legitimate goal to develop, test, and better disseminate clinical treatments. Any given organization may not be able to fund both basic and applied efforts.”

One prominent researcher at Mass General wrote: “Much of the shift in government funding has focused on basic mechanisms of disease leaving the actual care of groups of children, particularly those with mental health conditions, uncovered. Moreover, biologics and pharmaceuticals have dramatically reduced their involvement in treatments for children. Given that a majority of mental health issues emerge in childhood, better understanding and treating these disorders in children not only improves the suffering of the children and their families, but changes the trajectory of these children as they age into adulthood.”

And a doctor at Stanford wrote: “We want to fund clinical research because it is harder and harder to get this kind of research funded nowadays. The NIMH, which funds most mental health research, has turned to funding more basic/bench research. They want to find mechanisms for how the brain works. That is important and should yield information that will eventually lead to clinical breakthroughs. But that is 10-20-more years away. Pharmaceutical companies still fund some clinical research, but they have their own specific goals and usually don’t fund enough of biological research other than medication trials. So clinical researchers are becoming extinct, and more dependent on philanthropy and charitable organizations to provide their funding.”

How can I raise awareness toward cures?

You can help people understand that mental illnesses are brain diseases, rooted in biology, which can be addressed through medical treatment, just like other diseases. These brain diseases are actually quite commonplace and the #1 cause of adult disability in the world. We want to promote the need for early intervention in our youth. Although current modes and systems of treatment are often inadequate to heal patients fully, research and policy advocacy can make satisfactory care, routine recovery, and even cures possible. We want get people talking about cures for mental and developmental brain disorders!

Does AIM fund post-doctoral fellowships?

AIM awards research grants to post-doctoral investigators who will be mentored by distinguished doctors at esteemed medical institutions from around the world. AIM funds clinical research that produces a direct and tangible benefit to youth and their families. Applicants should be able to clearly explain how their research is intended to help youth now. AIM pays no indirect costs or institutional overhead to the institution supporting the post-doctoral fellow.


* While we understand that some foundations specialty focus, AIM seeks to fund the most promising projects or innovative ideas across different mental health areas, primarily because of the overlap in conditions (autistic spectrum patients can get severely depressed, schizophrenia can be hard to distinguish from autism spectrum in younger patients, etc.).

One clinical psychiatrist at Stanford wrote: “While Foundations have traditionally focused on specific disorders, they have been more flexible in funding innovative research and some have broadened the scope of their focus. A good example is what used to be NARSAD (National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression) that is now “The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.” This Foundation is now funding a wide range of research that ranges from schizophrenia to bipolar to autism. It is one of the most successful foundations that is focused on mental health disorders. My hope is that AIM will mirror what NARSAD has accomplished but with a focus on pediatric psychopathology. The more we learn about these disorders, the more we become aware that they are all related. Schizophrenia, ADHD, and autism share a large number of the same genes. These observations have led the NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health] to focus on studying constructs that cut across disorders through the development of the Research Domain Criteria and in an attempt to stay away from arbitrary categorical characterization. It is more progressive to avoid focusing on specific diagnosis and think about symptoms in a dimensional way and studying them in different disorders… examples of these symptoms include reactivity to stress, resiliency, social deficits, and emotional reactivity…”