THE BLOG
07/07/2015 08:03 am ET | Updated Jul 07, 2016

A Presidential Debate on Science: Mental Illness and the Human Dimensions of Science

After trying to kill himself the first time, my friends' son spoke to them about the unbearable weight of his depression. He said he would try to hold on, but wasn't sure he could. He went to many doctors. Nothing seemed to work. He waited until he was 21 before buying the necessary equipment to kill himself. This time he was more serious. Science did not understand his brain and could not provide relief. He'd find his own solution.

I was thinking about him as I sat in the lobby of the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan last week waiting to talk to Dr. Harold Koplewicz, director of the institute, a renowned clinician, and an advocate for mentally ill children. I wanted to know what aspects of mental health he'd like discussed in a presidential science debate proposed by ScienceDebate.org.

Some people think science is dry or boring and has nothing to do with their lives. Still more believe that science has become so complex that politicians are incapable of talking about it, that no one but scientists can discuss it. But science is now so integral to every aspect of our lives that it has to be talked about by those who wield power. At one end of the spectrum a rocket is launched into space as part of our quest to understand the universe (and study our own world from space); at the other end, scientists delve into the brain so as to understand it and find a way to alleviate the kinds of misery that lead to suicide. Between these two vast scientific endeavors are millions of other scientific quests, each one seeking to expand our knowledge of the physical world.

Without science, many of you - perhaps most of you - wouldn't be reading this because you'd be dead. Science has an impact not just on our physical health and intellectual life, but also on our economic health. Without science there'd be no internet, no cell phones, no satellites, no MRIs, and none of the technological advances of Elon Musk (full disclosure: a ScienceDebate.org supporter and funder).

Science affects us more than any other human activity on earth. A presidential debate on science would be the most important, vital, and far-reaching debate of the election. That one doesn't exist already as an intrinsic part of the process is actually bizarre. Voters should consider signing Science Debate's call for one, and then advocate in whatever other ways they can.

Most candidates don't have degrees in economics or foreign policy, but still debate these complex subject. They talk to experts, form opinions, and are then questioned on the validity of those opinions. Shouldn't they make the same effort and undergo the same questioning when it comes to science? No one expects them to be scientists, but shouldn't they at least understand science's broad outlines? Shouldn't they know how political decisions can help or harm the enterprise? Given what science tells us about life on earth, and about the future of life on earth, shouldn't we know what they understand and what plans they have to protect us and, most importantly, protect our children?

Mental health, but particularly the mental health of children, is a perfect example of how politicians can talk about big human issues that have complex science components. According to the Child Mind Institute's compendium of recent findings, over 17 million American children and youths under 18 have, or have had, a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. More than 70% of youth offenders in the Juvenile Justice system meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates the total cost to America of untreated mental illness (lost productivity, drug and alcohol addiction, crime and punishment, homelessness, hospitalization, etc.) at well over 300 billion dollars a year.

Perhaps because of the continuing stigma of mental illness, Dr. Koplewicz, among many others, believes the amount of money spent on mental health (research and care) does not match its social or economic impact. This is why he and the Child Mind Institute now support ScienceDebate.org.

To believe that all politicians are cynical is to collaborate in the cynicism that destroys democracy, but for the sake of argument let's imagine all politicians are not just cynical, but heartless too. It doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that they're not psychiatrists or neurologists. In a presidential debate about science, it would be perfectly valid for a candidate to talk about the science of mental illness purely in economic terms, comparing, for example, increased funding for brain research with the continued financial toll of the status quo. Depending on his or her policy ideas, the incoming president could, in the long run, save billions of dollars and thousands of lives regardless of compassion or lack of it.

When my friend told me her son had killed himself, she said, "We're ruined, our life is ruined." And this is what I think about when I think about science. There is nothing dry about it. It's a mother, a father, a sister, and the tragedy of a boy who couldn't wait for science to understand his problem.

In the last 100 years, infant mortality has dropped by 90% and life expectancy has gone from 54 years to 78. Some diseases have been totally eradicated. This is almost entirely because of science. In the next few decades, with new ways to study the living brain, science will make similar strides with mental illness. One day, science will find a way to diminish this tide of sorrow washing into families across the globe. It's just a matter of time.

How much time is up to us - and very much up for debate.