Mental health- an essential part of children’s overall health- has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work, and in society. Both physical and mental health affects how we think, feel, and act on the inside and outside. The brains of children consist of different regions that support the cognitive function humans need to survive but none of these regions work alone. They receive and send inputs at all times, firing cells in other parts within the brain and creating the pattern of synchronized activity behind our thoughts, feelings, and actions. These patterns of brain activity show that they can predict the progress of anxiety, depression, and attention symptoms more accurately than other tools used to diagnose mental conditions.
Northeastern University in collaboration with the University of California at Berkeley and Vanderbilt University identified the special patterns of activity in the brains of children and predicted how symptoms of depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity progress. Researchers are imaging these patterns to predict how symptoms of psychiatric disorders develop in teenagers. Their new prediction model offers an important tool to address anxiety and depression. A survey by the Pew Research center shows that teens put anxiety and depression as their biggest concern. “Emotional health has hit a low, and unfortunately, this then turns into things like suicide,” says Professor Susan Whitefield -Gabrieli, who directs the Biomedical Imaging Center at Northeastern. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicides are the leading cause of death among teenagers. The biggest problem lies in being late identifying symptoms of mental illnesses from an early age. Conventional research on brain activity and psychiatric disorders has mostly focused on children who are at risk of depression. The goal now is to find even earlier indications of mental illnesses in the brain images of infants, in addition to conducting wide-scale behavioral indications that could involve techniques such as exercise and meditation.
All children and youth have the right to lead happy and healthy lives and deserve access to effective care to prevent or treat any mental health problems that they may develop. However, there is a tremendous amount of unmet need and health disparities are particularly pronounced for children and youth living in low-income communities, ethnic minority youth, or those with special needs.