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New York City
March 2002

Harold Koplewicz, M.D.
Advocate & Champion of Child Mental Health
By Bruce Myint

One look at the warm lights and pastel colored interior of the New York University Child Study Center and all the images you have about mental-health facilities begin to fade away. Lush lounge chairs replace old, leather couches. Where you expect inkblot tests and musty books, there are sleek computers and glossy magazines. And it’s no accident. The Center symbolizes a deliberate effort to change the way we think about the field of child psychiatry— a vital goal in a culture ill at ease with the topic of mental health.

“More teenagers will die of suicide this year than AIDS, infectious disease, pneumonia, cancer, stroke— all of those combined,” laments Dr. Harold Koplewicz, founder of the NYU Child Study Center.

“Teenagers are still dying unnecessarily and the only way that you will improve that is to improve the science of psychiatric illness, which means that you’ll understand the warning signs and the treatment of depression. But you have to destigmatize depression. You have to make it a real illness before parents and teachers will help kids identify it.”

Dr. Koplewicz is determined to persuade Americans to acknowledge the ‘realness’ of childhood mental illness. His goals are timely. Since graduating from Albert Einstein Medical Center in 1978, he has watched parents and students struggle to cope with school violence, teen depression, and, most recently, the trauma of the World Trade Center attacks. Three years ago, the Surgeon General reported that 10 million children and teenagers suffer from psychiatric illnesses. Although such cases have received more attention than in the past, the stigma of psychiatric disease endures—curtailing efforts to advance the science of child mental health and improve the treatment of psychiatric illnesses.

Currently, only one out of five children with a diagnosable disorder gets any kind of treatment.

“Isn’t that amazing?” asks Koplewicz, emphasizing the fact that this happens in the richest country in the world.

Since opening the NYU Child Study Center in 1998, Dr. Koplewicz has been fighting to remedy this situation through savvy public awareness campaigns and a concerted effort to bridge the gap between scientific research and clinical practice.

When school shootings erupted in the mid-90s, specialists from the Child Study Center spoke on morning television, advising parents and teachers on how to identify warning signs of aggressive behavior. After 9/11, their advice on coping with posttraumatic stress appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide.

The Center’s website, www.AboutOurKids.org, attracts 100,000 visitors every month. Through these efforts and others like them, the Center has begun to lift childhood mental health out of the same dark cloud that once obscured AIDS and cancer. In fact, their outreach efforts were inspired by the successful AIDS quilt project and the cancer-awareness programs of the 90s.

“By destigmatizing they were able to change the way people thought about [diseases] and thereby increased research dollars and led to better care.”

Public education is only one stage, however. At the end of the day, it is the NYU Child Study Center’s pioneering research that aims to push the science of child psychiatry forward and improve care. At the midtown center, Koplewicz’s staff conducts rigorous research and clinical treatment. Their mission to apply science to practice ensures that patients receive state-of-the-art care and only treatments that they have developed or that have been proven effective elsewhere. They embrace a unique fusion of clinical care and front-line research that Dr. Koplewicz envisioned from the very beginning:

“When I came to NYU,” explains Koplewicz “my dream was the idea that we could create a center that was going to advance the science of child mental illness and the treatment of those illnesses.”

Over the last four years, the Center has grown from a modest three-room facility to a 20,000 square foot office housing a legion of research institutes and programs, each investigating a critical area of child mental health, such as: anxiety and mood disorders, ADHD, learning and achievement, and pediatric neuroscience.

The Center’s unique approach is epitomized in one of their most innovative projects, Parentcorps, a government funded program headed by the Institute of Children at Risk. The goal of Parentcorps is to identify naturally good parents in low-socioeconomic areas and teach them to train parents of preschoolers on how to play with and discipline their children in order to decrease aggression— a behavior that can be alleviated with improved parenting-skills. The Center plans to extend Parentcorps to New Jersey next year and, if successful, expand the program nationwide.

In large part, the Center’s success can be traced to Dr. Koplewicz’s talent for rallying broad public support. Dedicated board members and key partnerships in the medical community help explain the Center’s rapid achievements. While Al Roker stars on an instructional video for ParentCorps, Senators Schumer and Clinton fight for improved insurance coverage of mental health treatments. Koplewicz makes it a point to acknowledge the Center’s broad base of local and national supporters who shared his passion for helping children.

Still, their most natural partnership, says Koplewicz, has been local educators who spend their days working with kids. Before opening the center, he organized the Education Advisory Council in order to keep an open and ongoing dialogue with the city’s educators. The Council meets with educators regularly during the year to address mental health issues affecting city students — explaining why Chancellor Levy contacted the center for advice immediately after the September attacks.

On September 11th of this year, the New York University Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York will open an exhibit titled “The Day Our World Changed” showcasing artwork created by New York metropolitan-area children in response to 9/11. The Center hopes to build on the success of its hugely popular “Childhood Revealed”—an evocative collection of art generated by youngsters who have mental disorders. Originally planned as a single showing, “Childhood Revealed” continues to draw crowds. To date, it has visited 15 cities around the nation, spawned a book, and reached an audience of 30 million. A cornerstone of their outreach effort, it has been embraced by the public—a promising sign for an organization seeking to bring child mental health out into the open.#


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.