A Transformative Approach to Mental Health

A Transformative Approach to Mental Health

Artificial Intelligence and Telehealth Help us Prevent Mental Illness

When Kristen’s* daughter Olivia* threw herself down a flight of stairs during a school field trip, she never imagined that her child had been dealing with urges to self-harm. But after moving to a new school and facing bouts of bullying, Olivia’s mounting anxiety and depression became too much.

“Mental illness isn’t like a broken arm, where you put a cast on it and wait for it to heal,” Kristen says. “It’s a chronic, lasting disease.”

Pressure at school, social media consumption, isolation, and family upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are just a few of the stressors our youth face today. They have shined a bright light on the mental health crisis, yet the problem has been mounting for years. 

In the United States, more than 53 percent of parents and guardians report they’re concerned about the mental state of their kids. This startling statistic is why we’ve become the largest inpatient mental health provider of any children’s hospital in the nation. We meet a critical need for kids and teens in our area.

“Cincinnati Children’s has always been there for us,” Kristen says. “They’re committed to providing the care my daughter needed—care we couldn’t find anywhere else.”   

As more kids find themselves struggling, we’re transforming our approach to mental healthcare by improving access to treatment and enhancing innovative research to identify children at risk so we can prevent problems from occurring altogether.

And we’re seeking dedicated, committed partners to help advance these efforts. By working with donors, the tech industry and others in our community, we can help more kids like Olivia.

Access to Quality Mental Healthcare is a Must

When Olivia began struggling with severe anxiety and depression at just 12 years old, it was a community counselor who first recognized she needed further evaluation from our experts. And while Olivia was able to be seen, many other families aren’t—due to challenges like the pandemic, their location, or not having enough local providers to meet the need.

For the last eight years, the Maxon Foundation has helped us expand our circle of care with telehealth programs, connecting our experts to community caregivers and equipping them with the tools they need to help kids stay healthy.

The Maxon Foundation’s most recent gift specifically supports our mental health work, helping us educate pediatricians and school counselors to better identify symptoms, provide treatment, or give referrals when more specialized care is needed—before things escalate to a crisis level.

“Early implementation of the telehealth program put into place an infrastructure to seamlessly provide the highest level of care to all throughout the pandemic,” says James J. Ryan, Jr., trustee of the Maxon Foundation. “The prescient vision of Cincinnati Children’s to focus on the development of its telehealth program years ago is making a great impact on mental healthcare today.”

By developing interactive tele-mentoring courses through our Extension for Community Care Outcomes (Project ECHO), we’re able to make an especially needed impact for families living in underserved and rural areas, which are particularly lacking in accessible mental health professionals.

“We’ve seen how Project ECHO is making a difference, but we know there is still a tremendous need to provide better services to people who may have trouble traveling to see doctors in Cincinnati,” James says. “Our goal has always been to help this program grow, to show how it can improve lives. Now we hope others will see its impact and join us in supporting it.”

While improving access to care is critical in preventing devastating outcomes, we understand it will take effort from all fronts to truly make a difference. To this end, our research experts are leading bold new initiatives aimed at early identification of those most at risk—so we can create laser-focused interventions.

Predicting a Child’s Mental Health Trajectory

Studies show that about 50 percent of mental health challenges can be prevented if they are caught and addressed early. That’s why we’re engaging partners to solve mental health issues right at the start: during childhood. 

We’ve teamed up with Oak Ridge National Laboratories, home to one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, for our Mental Health Trajectories Project. Through the Decoding Mental Health Center, we’re working to find patient-specific mental health patterns so that we can identify children with the highest risk of developing a mental illness.

“It’s our goal to cure depression, anxiety and suicide ideation through early intervention,” says John Pestian, PhD, co-director of the mental health trajectory program, and Professor and Endowed Chair, Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Biomedical Informatics. Similar to pediatric growth charts that project height, weight, body mass and head circumference, this innovative research will help us predict patient trajectories for mental illness.

To do this, we’re assembling large amounts of data from sources known to play a role in influencing the mental health of a growing child. Our team is looking for patterns in medical records, genetic factors, economic disruption, housing conditions, family dysfunctions, substance abuse, systemic racism and—like Olivia—bullying.

It’s a massive task that involves more than 25 leading scientists in nine different research divisions within the medical center, as well as collaborators at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Colorado and Oak Ridge.

“The computer takes in all that data and learns about mental illness in a matter of hours, just a fraction of the time a normal computer would take,” says Dr. Pestian. “Over time, trajectories will allow families and providers to take action early enough to prevent the dangers of self-harm and even the tragedy of suicide.”

Real Progress Demands Community Collaboration

Olivia has trekked a slow and rocky road toward recovery. She’s had multiple stays at our dedicated psychiatric campus in College Hill, yet Kristen believes her daughter’s experience has been life-changing thanks to our tireless pursuit to provide family-centered care.

“There were daily family rounds from Olivia’s team. I also got updates over the phone every single day, and I needed that,” says Kristen. “They did an amazing job taking care of me while they were taking the very best care of her.” 

Olivia’s experience here has inspired her as well.

She hopes to one day become a psychologist, and her dream is to make her way back to College Hill as a care provider.

As we focus on technology-based solutions that make mental healthcare more accessible and prevention more effective, we’ll continue to rely on our community of supporters so that our children can not only survive a world of daily stress, but thrive in it.

For more information on how you can support our mental health research, please contact Ashley Titus at 513-803-6593 or

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of this family.

Zeroing in On Aggression to Prevent Violence

The rise in school shootings and other forms of violence has specialists alarmed. Similar to our Mental Health Trajectories Project, our research experts are working on a screening tool to determine a patient’s risk of aggression.

This is the largest mental health study we’ve ever conducted, with more than 10,000 patients.

Results support the use of a tool called the Brief Rating of Aggression by Children and Adolescents (BRACHA) to predict aggression during inpatient psychiatric admissions.

Our team plans to validate the BRACHA in patients up to the age of 25 to help reduce violence in adults.

“The BRACHA has improved safety and quality of care at Cincinnati Children’s,” says Michael Sorter, MD, director of our Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and co-founder of the study. “We’ll continue working to refine the results to provide the best care possible to our patients.”