Measles, Vaccinations and Prevention in Behavioral Health: Do We have “Behavioral Health Vaccines”? | Mental Health America

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Measles, Vaccinations and Prevention in Behavioral Health: Do We have “Behavioral Health Vaccines”?

By David Shern, Ph.D. and Andrea Blanch, Ph.D.

The outbreak of measles in Disneyland highlighted the importance of vaccinating children against contagious diseases.  Vaccinations prevent children from getting ill and from spreading disease to others. The fact that a few hundred cases of measles was front page news is a tribute to the progress we’ve made.  Measles, smallpox and polio, among others, have largely been eliminated

People are very familiar with the concept of vaccinations.  What is less well known is that we have a number of programs and interventions that function like “behavioral health vaccines.”  These programs help prevent a wide variety of behavioral health problems over long periods of time.   For example, children who participate in the Seattle Social Development Program, a program involving teacher student and parent training, show improved social and emotional skills that last into adulthood.  Fifteen years following participation in the program, adults were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with  mental illness, were more likely to have completed an Associate’s degree, had higher levels of socioeconomic status, and were less likely to have had a sexually transmitted disease than those who did not participate..  Similarly, a 13 year follow-up with children who participated in the Good Behavior Game found that participants had a 36% reduction in special education placements, a 21% increase in high school graduation, a 61% increase in college attendance, and were 35% less likely to abuse alcohol.  Similar long term benefits have been documented for the Nurse Family Partnership and other prevention programs.

These interventions work by strengthening competency.  They are part of an ever-expanding set of practices that can dramatically improve the public’s health, wellbeing and productivity.  Rigorous cost benefit analyses have demonstrated that over the long term, these programs can save substantial sums of money.  Some, like the Good Behavior Game, return over $55 dollars for every dollar invested by reducing antisocial behavior and increasing prosocial behaviors.  Some, like the Nurse Family Partnership and the Triple P Program, lower rates of child abuse and other factors that can have a harmful affect on child development.  These programs return many dollars in social benefit for each dollar invested. 

As the effects of these “behavioral health vaccines” become better known, we will stop taking negative social outcomes like high rates of school dropout, interpersonal violence, addiction and mental illnesses as inevitable.  Implementing prevention programs is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.  Join Mental Health America in working to change our expectations for a healthy society by making effective prevention programs part of the Next Major Era in Public Health. 

David Shern picture
Dr. David Shern is the Senior Science Advisor at Mental Health America having served as its President/CEO from 2006-2014. He also has a faculty appointment in the Department of Mental Health at the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and previously was a Dean and Professor at the University of South Florida.
Andy Blanch, PhD, has been an advocate for the development of trauma-informed public policies and programs for the past 30 years. 


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