Azusa Pacific held its second annual celebration of Brain Awareness Week (BAW) March 11–17, joining in the international initiative to raise awareness about brain health and advances in neurobiological research. APU partnered with the National Institute of Mental Health and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, alongside universities and organizations from more than 82 countries participating in BAW, first established in 1996.
This year, Skyla Herod, Ph.D., assistant professor in APU’s Department of Biology and Chemistry and BAW organizer, chose the theme of mental health, which encompasses pervasive issues like mental illnesses, depression, and anxiety. “We need a better understanding of the neuroscience behind these illnesses—particularly anxiety and depression that are most common in young people—and an open dialogue about how we as a community of believers can do a better job of meeting the needs of those with mental illnesses,” said Herod.
To educate local students about the importance of brain health, Herod also organized the first Brain Awareness Fair at Azusa Unified’s Center Middle School, involving 31 senior neurobiology students and 250 area seventh graders. Local kids replaced life science textbooks and classrooms for a morning of hands-on learning and natural discovery complete with exhibits, take-home games, puzzles, and trivia.
“By presenting science in a fun, interactive way, we hope to inspire some of these middle school students to pursue science majors in college,” Herod said. “We go beyond the D.A.R.E. no-use message to teach kids what drugs and alcohol do to the brain. The program also emphasizes how a balanced diet and regular exercise improve mental function and encourage new brain cell growth, as well as the importance of wearing a helmet and sports safety.”
Back on campus, Herod and her student team staffed a booth all week with informational fliers, brochures, and buttons intended to spark conversation and promote education. The university also hosted three lectures featuring leaders in mental health research who shared their research and encouraged audience members to fight for mental illness prevention and recovery. Ian Cook, MD, director of the Depression Research and Clinic program at UCLA, discussed the physical effects of depression and anxiety, as well as society’s need to address and treat these common disorders. Kenneth Wells, MD, M.P.H., discussed the socioeconomic barriers to equality of depression treatment and ways in which community efforts may help. Finally, a panel discussion brought together a clinician, a neuroscientist, an APU theology professor, and a pastor who have studied the questions and controversies surrounding mental health in the Church. Panelists examined what Scripture says about caring for those with mental illnesses and offered an ethical Christian response to mental health research. All these efforts sought to expand APU students’ awareness by communicating the importance of brain health, the widespread effects of mental illnesses, and possible prevention and treatment methods.
“One of the most theologically and spiritually challenging experiences—for both the sufferer and for those who love and care for that person—is chronic mental illness, especially in its most difficult-to-treat forms,” said Heather Clements, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Theology and Philosophy and discussion panelist. “As a Christian community, we must listen to and be in relationship with those affected by mental illness, creating a welcoming space for them to experience love instead of fear, blame, shame, and marginalization.”