Aetna Awards $230,000 to the UM to Help African American Teens Conquer Depression

Aetna through The Aetna Foundation has awarded the University of Michigan a $230,000 grant to fund a school-based initiative aimed at educating African-American teenagers about depression and the importance of early treatment. Specifically, the program aims to defuse the stigma of depression freeing these teenagers to seek help when needed.

Aetna’s grant will enhance the collaboration between researchers at the University of Michigan (“U-M”) and the non-profit community organization MINDS, Inc. (Mental Illness Needs Discussion Sessions) on a school-based education and awareness program to break down the stigma and barriers which prevent African American teenagers from understanding the causes of depression and importance of seeking treatment. The program will be offered to 7th and 8th graders at twelve different middle schools across multiple school districts; contracts with the schools are in the final stages of preparation. To ensure the program reaches the students who need it most, participating schools must serve a predominantly economically-challenged student population that is at least 60 percent African-American.

“Depression is a significant national problem, yet with early diagnosis and treatment, we can do so much to alleviate the suffering of those who confront it,” said Debbie Lantzy-Talpos, Head of the Michigan Market for Aetna, who will present the grant at the November 4th gala to celebrate the grand opening of the Rachel Upjohn Building which houses the University of Michigan’s new Depression Center. “As a mother of teenagers, I know that depression presents a particular danger for young people who may not fully understand what is happening to them. Add to that, the unfounded stigma which deters many from seeking treatment, and you have the potential for a poor outcome despite the great strides that have been made in diagnosis and treatment. Aetna is proud to support the work of the U-M Depression Center and MINDS as they help our young people learn to confront and manage depression. It is our hope that Aetna can disseminate this model as a best practice to other communities seeking to support African American teens as they strive to grow up physically and mentally well.”

“Reducing the stigma that surrounds depression and related illnesses, especially among certain populations including African Americans and young people, is crucial if we are to succeed in helping people get diagnosed and treated promptly and effectively, and improve their chances for long-term remission,” says John Greden, M.D., executive director of the U-M Depression Center and chairman of the U-M Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. “Aetna’s leadership in recognizing the importance of this goal, and its generosity in funding projects like this one, epitomize the way corporate partners can assist in the struggle against depression.”

The project will be led by Cynthia Ewell Foster, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical lecturer in the U-M Department of Psychiatry. “Research clearly shows that stigma and a lack of knowledge are barriers to early identification and appropriate help-seeking for depression and other forms of mental illness,” she said. “This program has the potential to intervene with at-risk, underserved youth at an early age, prior to the onset of debilitating clinical depression and other forms of mental illness, in order to de-stigmatize and increase rates of utilization of mental health services. Our work benefits substantially from the expertise of Heather Irish, the Founder and CEO of MINDS Inc., who is working within local schools and communities to implement the MINDS intervention.”

The University of Michigan grant is one of ten grants totaling $2.25 million that Aetna awarded in 2006 to develop programs to serve as national models for the treatment of depression, particularly among racial and ethnic groups that often fall into the gap which persists as our health care system works to overcome disparities in the level of access and quality of health care Americans receive. Depression has been a clinical focus of Aetna since the 2005 launch of Aetna Depression Management, the first national program to integrate medical and behavioral health by increasing reimbursement to primary care physicians who actively screen and talk with their patients in order to diagnose depression. In addition to financial incentives, Aetna provides primary care doctors with depression screening tools, support from Aetna case managers who work with patients to increase adherence to the prescribed treatment, free consultation with a network of on-call psychiatrists, and educational training for the physician’s office staff.

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