By Tom Leyde, Monterey Herald
Monterey >> The National Institute of Mental Health estimates one in five children has or will have a serious mental disorder.
That figure disturbed the Stilwell family of Carmel so much they decided to do something about it. They founded AIM for Mental Health, and last year started a walk and rally to raise awareness of the problem. They also held a dinner to raise money for much-needed medical research.
AIM’s second walk and rally will be Sunday. The 2-mile walk, from Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and back, starts at 9:15 a.m.
“Our goal is to grow a national campaign in support of mental health,” said Richard Stilwell, 17, a Carmel High School senior and AIM co-founder. “At AIM we believe that anything is possible, and this is just the beginning.”
Stilwell’s mother, Susan Stilwell, is the other co-founder of AIM. She became aware of a funding crisis for childhood mental health about 18 months ago when she and her daughter were part of the National Charity League, which does philanthropy for organizations.
Stilwell realized there was no national effort to get help for children with mental health problems, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), panic attacks, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder.
After weeks of conferring with mental health experts around the United States, Stilwell also found that none knew of a national campaign to raise money for cures for children with mental illness.
While there are national campaigns to fight cancer and to provide aid to victims of natural disasters, there remains no such movement to battle childhood mental diseases. That is AIM’s quest, said Stilwell, a non-practicing attorney and innkeeper with her husband, Mark Stilwell. “The response has been tremendous.”
So far, Stilwell said, AIM has raised almost $1 million. At its inaugural fundraising dinner during the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, it raised $250,000. It has already dispersed $450,000 to top clinical researchers working on cures. Of that amount, $180,000 went to the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at UCLA.
In the last year, AIM’s website says, the center has made advances in areas including finding a potential biomarker for schizophrenia risk in children and developing a new brain imaging technology.
“Brain research for mental health challenges is miniscule compared to other diseases,” Stilwell said, “so the money is really needed.”
Stilwell became aware of mental illness at a young age. Her mother had anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“As a child I was always trying to fix her and there were never any answers to help her,” she said. The reasons for the rise in mental health disorders among children haven’t been fully determined. But one Stanford doctor, Stilwell said, believes it’s genetic.
Now, schizophrenia and other mental disorders are being diagnosed earlier.
As a result, Stilwell said, the stigma of mental illness is slowly being chipped away.
“Kids are now talking about ADHD and anxiety. Now it’s becoming more commonplace,” she said.
“The whole purpose of the walk,” she said, “is to get kids out there so they’re aware of the symptoms and don’t get worried. … Another reason for the walk is that you can’t go preach to kids about mental health in the classroom. Kids won’t pay attention. On the walk, that’s how you get their attention. This is really important.”
Last year nearly 300 people took part in the AIM walk after a three-week rally, Stilwell said.
“The biggest message, other than getting people to come to this walk on Sunday, is we’re filling a void,” Stilwell said.
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