From The Quarterly, Summer 2011
The Ehrlich family of northern New Jersey and Amelia Versace, M.D., transplant from Verona, Italy to the University of Pittsburgh, share a commitment. Participants in the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Research Partners program, they are mutually determined to help bring about a future in which people like Rebecca Ehrlich do not spend a lifetime struggling with the devastating symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Harryet and Stuart Ehrlich, Rebecca’s parents, help fund Dr. Versace, a 2009 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee, in her studies to identify abnormalities in the brain that may convey risk for bipolar disorder.
Nowadays, it is broadly accepted that mental illnesses are brain illnesses. But when Rebecca was growing up, in the 1970s and 1980s, many health professionals believed mental illness was largely due to societal ills or family dysfunction. Rebecca’s violent, out of control behavior was ascribed in one instance to “hysterical parents.” Rebecca was always in some form of treatment ─ none of it helpful back then, and some of it horrendous – from early childhood until she was finally correctly diagnosed at the age of 21. Rebecca is 39 today.
In 2003, Harryet Ehrlich and Lewis Opler, M.D., Ph.D., co-authored a book, “Resurrection and Redemption: Overcoming Mental Illness and Regaining Dignity,” which chronicles Rebecca’s six-year ordeal with a now discredited organization called Kids of North Jersey. Purportedly a psychiatrist-supervised residential program for troubled teens, it was, in fact, a cult-like quasi-incarceration in which youngsters were subjected to continuous verbal and physical abuse, isolation and humiliation. After the Ehrlichs removed Rebecca from the program, they brought suit against the organization in a landmark civil rights case that resulted in a significant out-of-court settlement.
Dr. Opler, who introduced the Ehrlichs to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, then known as NARSAD, is a member of Columbia University’s world renowned psychiatry faculty and one of the nation’s leading psychopharmacologists. (He is also the father of a 2003 NARSAD Young Investigator, Mark Opler, Ph.D., of New York University, an expert on psychosis in mental illnesses). He had entered the Ehrlich’s lives in as Rebecca’s doctor, and as far as Harryet is concerned, “Rebecca is alive because of him.”
Through numerous breakdowns and hospitalizations, Rebecca proved resistant to the commonly prescribed medications for bipolar disorder. In addition, she had developed symptoms of psychosis. When Dr. Opler suggested clozapine, an antipsychotic tested on patients resistant to other treatments in the1980s by Herbert Y. Meltzer, M.D., of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Scientific Council, “it was the first time she found relief,” Harryet says. Since then, Rebecca has been on a cocktail of medications that keep her stable most of the time, but the long years of misdiagnosis, mistreatment or no treatment have taken their toll.
One of the pressing issues in brain research is the lack of biomarkers that can predict risk for or presence of specific psychiatric illnesses. Such markers, if found, could prevent missed or false diagnoses .They could inform choice of medications, thus avoiding the trial and error so common at present. Ideally, they could ultimately lead to the holy grail of prevention. This is the aim of the work Dr. Versace is undertaking with her NARSAD Grant.
Dr. Versace came to the U.S. because “it leads the way in psychiatric research.” The research group that she is part of at the University of Pittsburgh’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic is applying the most advanced techniques of brain imaging in the search for biomarkers of brain and behavior disorders. The group’s director, Mary L. Phillips, M.D., was herself a 2005 NARSAD Independent Investigator studying neural circuits in bipolar disorder.
Each May, Rebecca Ehrlich leads a benefit walk called ‘Taking Strides Against Mental Illness’. The proceeds go to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. The event was Rebecca’s idea and she is its driving force. “But,” she says, “it’s a family affair. My mom is my right hand man. She’s the co-founder and the one who came up with the name. My dad is my left hand man. He’s the treasurer.”
Also on board are Rebecca’s sister, Sarah, friends, neighbors and honorary chairpersons State Senator and Mrs. Richard Codey and Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. Rebecca launches the event with a pep talk in which she relates how Taking Strides got started four years ago (inspired by the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer) and shares her personal story.
‘Taking Strides Against Mental Illness’ 2011, in which several hundred walkers participated, raised $20,000 for the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Already preparing for the 2012 walk, Rebecca says of her project, “I intend to have it grow.” Meanwhile, the Research Partnership between the Ehrlich Family and Dr. Versace is taking great strides on the path of discovery to recovery.