Left to right: Rudolf Uher, Dalhousie University mental health researcher; Monique Sampson and Blair Sampson, participants in the mental health study (FORBOW). Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Rudolf Uher thinks it may soon be possible to prevent severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression in young people. The psychiatrist delivered that hope-inspiring message yesterday at a fundraising breakfast for the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation.

“These illnesses can be extremely disabling,” says Uher, who holds a Canada Research chair in Early Intervention in Psychiatry. “These are also some of the most expensive, chronic illnesses to teat. And early intervention could benefit everyone, from individuals and families to taxpayers and society.”

Unless nipped in the bud, one in 20 Canadians can expect to develop a severe mental illness at some point in their lives.

The Czech-born doctor and Dalhousie University medical researcher has been following more than 400 youth and their parents for nearly five years. Infants and young adults up to age 24 are part of his long-term study aiming to revolutionize the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness through early intervention.

Conventional medical knowledge suggests the first symptoms emerge when a person is in their late teens or early 20s. Uher and his team of researchers rely on much earlier predictors of potential mental illness, including but not limited to extreme moodiness and anxiety. They believe it may be possible to prevent the onset of serious mental illness — particularly in children who have one or more afflicted parents — through careful observation and therapy to help both parents and children modify their behaviour.

Monique and Blair Sampson are active participants in the study called FORBOW. The study’s title is a well-meaning but difficult one to process,  “ Families Overcoming Risks and Building Opportunities for Wellbeing.”

Monique Sampson told the audience she had “no hesitation” in signing up her two children so they would never go through what she did trying to get help. Monique says she “cracked” after the death of her mother and subsequent divorce. She was incorrectly diagnosed with depression and in and out of hospital receiving electroschock therapy for several years until her bipolar disorder was identified and treated. She met her husband Blair — a retired RCMP officer coping with PTSD after his first marriage broke up — at a psychiatric day clinic. They married and all four children in their blended family are part of FORBOW, which checks up annually.

Sampson says the study has helped her 12-year-old son. A couple of years ago researchers noticed he had trouble controlling his temper during card games and play. Now Sampson says, “he often stops himself when he starts to get angry and he apologizes.”

Ongoing contact with families enrolled in the study — including a substantial portion with no previous history or genetic markers for mental illness — means researchers can help families access treatment if they need it. Uher, who sees patients at the Mood Disorders Clinic, was able to fast track the admission of a young woman who suddenly had to leave university and return home.

Sampson says her battle with mental illness has shown her she is not alone. Today she was thrilled to meet another woman — from a family well-known for its success in the construction business and its generous philanthropy — who also went public about her struggle.

Deborah Rotta-Loria is a member of the John Lindsay family that includes her mother Marjorie, her late father John Lindsay Sr., and her brother developer John Lindsay Jr. The Lindsays were honoured at the breakfast for making a $500,000 gift to the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation.

“We want to be part of the solution,” says John Lindsay Jr. The Lindsay gift will support a fund for Mood Disorders research focused on bipolar disorder. Rotta-Loria told the audience she still carries the “shame and stigma” of living with a bipolar disorder but has come to realize that “mental illness affects everyone.”

Her son Nicholas was diagnosed with depression before earning a PhD in chemistry from Dalhousie University.  A nephew, Alex Lindsay, is an engineer working full time in Alberta’s oil industry. Alex overcame a diagnosis of personality disorder that may have contributed to his arrest 10 years ago for obsessively importing and stockpiling machine guns that were never fired. He was sentenced to house arrest before graduating with an engineering degree from Dal.

“An enormous amount of money is funnelled into mental health but we are not getting at the heart of the  problem,” says Rotta-Loria. “Early diagnosis and treatment is essential. Professor Uher and his team at Dalhousie Medical Foundation are doing just that: opening the avenues for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in very young children — a worthy endeavour that needs our full support.”

The 10-year FORBOW study still has room for 200 more participants.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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