Gerry August

The excitement of prevention

Professor Gerry August draws on expertise in psychiatry to help children and families prevent mental illness

Professor Gerry August spent the early years of his career developing assessment tools and interventions in children’s mental health—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorders in particular. He worked in academic health centers and medical schools, training the next generation of practitioners and researchers, arriving at the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1985.

Directing a diagnostic and treatment service for children with autism and developmental disorders, August witnessed the extreme challenges facing parents of children with disabilities. The impact on him was profound and personal.

“I realized treatment for existing disorders is not always the best answer,” says August. “I would say to my students, ‘No disease has ever been cured by treating only those people who already have it.’”

In the 1990s, August shifted his focus away from clinic-based treatment research to community-based intervention research—from treatment to prevention. Today he describes himself as a prevention scientist.

“That’s the excitement of prevention,” says August.

“Let’s get out front and target those risk factors for a mental illness that lead to illness in the first place.”

In 2014 August came to the Department of Family Social Science to continue his work in prevention research and build a graduate program dedicated to prevention science. With him came Tim Piehler, a postdoctoral researcher who joined the department as an assistant professor. Together they have been exploring youth- and family-focused prevention factors, methods, and programs.

A large body of August’s path-breaking work in prevention came from research related to the Early Risers “Skills for Success” program. He designed the comprehensive, preventive intervention to target children 6 to 10 years old who have aggressive, disruptive, or nonconformist behaviors—a high risk for developing conduct problems including substance use and abuse. The highly recognized program targets academic as well as social competence, self-regulation of behavior, and parent involvement.

With colleague Abi Gewirtz, whom August met and mentored early in her career, August has been working to develop personalized prevention approaches in children’s mental health with support from a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Center for Personalized Prevention Research, which he directs. That means looking at new discoveries in genetics, neuroscience, and developmental science for innovative ways to design interventions that take the needs and preferences of children and their families into account.

It also means incorporating innovative technologies into intervention design and delivery, such as health care coaches, hotlines, text message alerts, and other technological advances such as mobile apps.

“Americans generally aren’t interested in health until they become unhealthy,” August observes wryly.

“People who may be at risk do not see themselves as help seekers. So you design ways to connect with them.”

August is also the director of training for the University’s new Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health, with clinics to open soon. Gewirtz is the director, with internationally renowned professor Dante Cicchetti as director of research.

“I had read everything Dante ever wrote and finally met him as the institute was developing,” says August.

The institute’s team will be using various translational science approaches in order to design novel interventions based on discoveries that focus on the underlying mechanisms associated with the onset and maintenance of disorders.

Located downtown near the University’s West Bank campus, the institute’s new mental health counseling and training clinic and lab will soon provide service to high-risk families. It will also provide University clinical graduate students a training ground in evidence-based treatment preventions—training that August is ideally suited to oversee.

Read more about Gerry August and the Department of Family Social Science.

Story by Gayla Marty | February 2016