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Peter Jensen, M.D.

The REACH Institute — New York City


​I founded The REACH Institute in 2006 with the goal of transforming mental health services for children and adults by empowering providers to care for their patients.  As a nation, we have a desperate shortage of trained providers who can deliver mental health services in the U.S. Through the REACH Institute, we train primary-care providers, therapists and other professionals to diagnose and treat mental health issues effectively. Since we began, REACH has trained more than 6,000 pediatricians and other primary-care physicians in all 50 states to be “first responders” to children with mental health needs.​​

The problem I'm trying to solve

​​Approximately 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. has a mental health condition, but less than 30 percent of them get the help they need for it. Families usually turn to their child’s pediatrician or other primary care provider for help with a child’s mental health because they trust their doctor. But most primary-care physicians don’t get much training in mental health services.

​​We have a drastic shortage of expertise. Typically, continuing medical education (CME) programs, which are required by all states for doctors to renew their licenses, are terribly ineffective. These CME training programs are pretty much a hit-and-run —  they're just lectures. They don’t teach new skills or change behavior. Through REACH, we give doctors the training to help them assess, diagnose and treat mental health problems so they can deliver high-level mental health services.​​

The second problem we’re trying to solve is that if you look at everyone who practices medicine, on average, practitioners are years behind the latest science — it takes an average of 17 years for research-based evidence to become incorporated into clinical practice. Discovering this was distressing to me because by then, I had spent nearly 10 years at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) doing large-scale clinical trials that were aimed at improving clinical practices for children’s mental health problems. ​

The moment that sparked my passion​​

When I was a child, there were eight kids in my family and I had a lot of health problems. I would often read about physician Albert Schweitzer and other scientists, and I came out of that thinking that I wanted to be a doctor. Also, during my childhood, I lost two siblings. That had a big role in shaping me and made me interested in psychology and mental health, so I became a child and adolescent psychiatrist. But it was really understanding the 17-year gap that inspired me to start REACH, with the goal of closing the gap between the latest science and what’s offered in clinical practice to just one to two years.

What I wish other people knew

​​I wish people knew they are often getting outdated medical care. I wish every parent knew about this gap and could say, “I want the latest in evidence-based care. How do I get it?” I’ve become a real believer in the power of advocacy. I often recommend asking whether your doctor has been trained by REACH; if not, they’re probably practicing 17-year-old medicine.​​

Why my approach is unique​

​In 2000, the national agenda from the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health called for training frontline providers to recognize and manage mental health care issues in children. When I founded REACH in 2006, we focused on addressing the children’s mental health crisis through the training of pediatric primary care providers, which was unique — and we continue to do so.

​​We essentially serve as agents to disseminate and deliver the training across the country. We don’t necessarily develop new therapies; we take what the best scientists have developed, teach other people about it and train other professionals to use these best therapies. We are the vehicle. We will come to doctors anywhere and everywhere to use these methods.​​

Primary-care physicians who complete REACH training are equipped with the knowledge, skills and comfort level they need to support their patients with mild to moderate anxiety, depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Knowing that every pediatric primary-care provider that REACH trains will go on to help 100 children a year with mental health issues motivates me to continue the work of REACH. And it gives me hope that the children’s mental health crisis will be solved. ​​

Advice to others who want to make a difference​​

Discover what you’re passionate about. It takes passion to move a system forward and create change. There are so many needs communities have. Find what excites you, because it’s going to take time and effort to address. The reward is worth it. What’s great about giving back after age 50 is that you can pick what you’re passionate about.​​

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