One of the largest gifts in Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) history will address what local medical experts call a desperate shortage of care in the Evansville region—youth mental health. Evansville natives Bill and Mary O’Daniel Stone recently gifted the school $34 million to create the Stone Center for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. IUSM leaders say the center recently named “one of the top bipolar researchers in the world” to lead the charge as it unleashes a multi-prong approach to improve mental health in young Hoosiers.
Associate Dean and Director at IUSM Evansville Dr. Steven Becker says there are only five child psychiatrists in southwestern Indiana’s medical service area of about one million people. A recent analysis showed only one child psychiatrist per 21,000 patients—a stark contrast to the national average of 1 per 9,000 patients.
“Compared to our four surrounding states, Indiana has about half as many child psychiatrists per our population,” says Becker. “Our whole five-state region is below the national average, and Indiana is at the bottom; the other states are in better shape than Indiana—and they’re not in good shape, they’re in bad shape.”
Swelling the number of mental health providers for young people is a major goal for the center; it will endow three new chairs and fund six additional fellowships in child and adolescent psychiatry. Becker believes the efforts will triple the number of child psychiatrists in the Evansville region in just two to three years.
A second major goal for the Stone Center is to build the program into a nationally recognized research hub for bipolar and mood disorders. IUSM recently announced Dr. Steve Strakowski, a world renowned researcher and expert in care for bipolar disorder, will execute that mission as the center’s first executive director.
Strakowski, who will begin April 1, grew up in northern Indiana and graduated from the University of Notre Dame before attending medical school out of state. He’s currently vice dean of research and associate vice president for regional mental health at University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School.
“It’s unusual to get a gift the size of the Stones’ generosity for mental health; that’s a huge attraction for me,” says Strakowski. “At this point in my career…I have missed this more direct research and interventional work. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize it’s becoming increasingly important to try to have more impact. Our research is good, but it hasn’t really changed how people are treated.”
Strakowski says bipolar disorder affects up to 3% of the population, “which doesn’t sound that high, but that’s higher than juvenile diabetes by two or three times.” The disorder typically emerges after puberty and develops into a full illness in high school, college or early adult years. Some of Strakowski’s work has focused on trying to understand how to stop the disorder from progressing.
IUSM is a national leader in Alzheimer’s disease research—among the top two in the country—and interestingly, the expertise translates well for bipolar disorder; it’s another factor that attracted Strakowski to Indiana. Plans call for utilizing the resources IUSM has built for studying Alzheimer’s disease to help build a second “world-class” research center in Indiana.
“IU is strong in brain imaging and genomics, which are the two things we really need to do our research in bipolar disorder,” says Strakowski. “The infrastructure is ideal for a bipolar program.”
By also focusing on general mental health in youth, IUSM leaders say the center will lay the groundwork for its final goal: developing a model of care for young people that can be leveraged by IUSM’s nine campuses throughout the state.
“The biggest problem in the U.S. is there are good treatments for lots of mental illnesses, but most people never get them,” says Strakowski. “First of all, they can’t get care to begin with. And second, when they get care, it’s typically not following the best evidence.”
The center aims to address both: gather the evidence, which will in turn support the development of the best treatments for young people.
“[The Stone Center] is unique, mainly because of the gift and also the strength of IU and the opportunities in Indiana. It’s nice to go back to where you’re from and help improve the circumstances,” says Strakowski. “Although the work will focus on Indy and Evansville initially, the real vision is to take the learnings and advances and build it statewide to lift up mental health across Indiana.”
Becker says IUSM is one of the top Alzheimer’s research centers in the country, and the resources developed for that disease can also be utilized to study bipolar disorder.