monkey group (copy)

A group of rhesus monkey adults and babies.

PAUL ASMAN AND JILL LENOBLE/FLICKR

If scientists want to spend our tax dollars poking, prodding and even killing non-human animals in studies aimed at improving human health, I say good for us.

I am comfortable with homo sapiens’ preeminence among the species, as well as with systems to ensure animal studies are conducted as humanely as possible.

But it’s hard to stomach animal research aimed at improving human health when what we already know about improving human health isn’t put into practice.

Researchers at UW-Madison are poised to begin a study that involves depriving newborn rhesus monkeys of their mothers and then comparing their brains with the brains of rhesus monkeys who were not deprived of their mothers.

The idea is to see how early deprivation — in this case, the lack of motherly love — affects brain growth and may contribute to the development of anxiety and depression.

“You always want to know more,” said Shel Gross, public policy director for the advocacy group Mental Health America of Wisconsin and chairman of the Wisconsin Council on Mental Health, which advises the Legislature.

At the same time, “there’s enough that we know that we could be doing a lot better,” he said.

It’s evident from all those direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads that there are plenty of drugs to treat depression and anxiety, which often occur together and are two of the most common mental health problems.

Gross also pointed to non-drug therapies and tools that can reliably screen children for mental health problems, but said mental health care has long received fewer public dollars and insurance coverage than physical health care.

Meanwhile, “nobody’s done enough” to prevent the kinds of trauma children can experience early in life that can lead to the need for mental health treatment, said Lynn Green, director of the Dane County Human Services Department.

And the county’s lead preventative health agency, Public Health Madison and Dane County does “not do anything related to mental health,” according to the agency’s operation manager David Caes.

This is not a knock against local services as much as it is symptomatic of the short shrift we give mental health generally.

Dane might actually be one of the leaders in children’s mental health. The county Human Services Department offers one of only two programs in the state aimed at treating children with serious mental illnesses in their homes, rather than in institutions, Green said.

I don’t criticize UW’s monkey research lightly, as depression and anxiety have plagued multiple members of one half of my family tree for at least three generations, including mine.

Without going into all of the, well, depressing details, it’s a history that has included therapy; pharmaceuticals; hospitalizations; invasive, last-ditch treatments; and self-harm.

But as even people not predisposed to mental illness know, mental illness isn’t caused solely by genes or upbringing.

Sometimes it’s a logical response to the world around us.

Like, say, a world that often ignores the mental health needs of children while taking newborn monkeys away from their mothers and later killing them so researchers can study their brains.

Now that’s depressing.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.