In 2018, we saluted Debra G. Perelman, co-founder and vice chair of the Child Mind Institute, for her leadership to improve treatment for childhood mental health disorders.
A teen whose obsessive-compulsive disorder compels him to take five showers before school. A second grader with Tourette’s syndrome. A twelve-year old who struggles with anxiety and depression. One in five children in the U.S. has a diagnosable mental health disorder—some mild, some severe. And yet, despite the magnitude of the problem, a lack of awareness, stigma, and inadequate access to care keep the majority of these young people from getting help.
These statistics took on new meaning for Debra Perelman, the President and CEO of Revlon, when her eldest child, Maia, was only four years old and showed signs of an anxiety disorder. Valuable time—more than two years—passed as Debbie, her husband Gideon Gil, and their daughter’s pediatrician believed the condition would resolve itself. It was Debbie’s father, businessman and philanthropist Ronald Perelman, who urged her to seek immediate and more specialized help.
The call she made, to renowned child psychiatrist Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, would not only change the trajectory of Maia’s life—she was diagnosed, successfully treated, and is now a thriving 14-year-old—it also would ignite a passion in Debbie to change the lives of thousands of other children and families by improving awareness, research, and treatment of children’s mental health disorders.
“After our experience, I talked a lot with Harold about how things could be done differently, how we could reach more people, tackle the stigma of mental health, and give kids their childhood back faster,” says Debbie. “On average it takes families about two years between the time they suspect a problem and the time they seek help. Those years represent a critical developmental time when children could be getting life-changing help.”
That conversation led Debbie, Dr. Koplewicz, and Brooke Garber Neidich to create the Child Mind Institute (CMI) in 2009, a one-of-a-kind, independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders.
Debbie and her co-founders moved quickly, convening focus groups with parents, school leaders, and others, and building a world-class scientific advisory board and a dedicated board of directors—all of which shaped the new organization’s threepronged mission: providing the highest standard of care, advancing science on the developing brain, and elevating public awareness and education.
CMI’s novel and evidence-based approach to care often involves concentrated therapy sessions that draw young patients from across New York, 48 states, and 42 nations. The financial aid programs, which Debbie has ardently championed, have provided more than $5 million in care to low-income families. In addition, CMI brings its services to schools in high-poverty neighborhoods of New York City and Newark, NJ, providing individual trauma care and resilience-building workshops, and training parents and school personnel on identifying signs of children with mental health needs. Fifty six percent of the children reached by CMI receive free or reduced-cost services.
The research by CMI on the developing brain and its open data sharing are already producing exciting progress and synergies. Scientists from around the world have published more than 1,300 articles using the data. And the Institute’s Healthy Brain Network is collecting brain imaging from 10,000 children in the metropolitan area—which will be the largest sample ever collected—and providing free comprehensive diagnostic evaluations to all participants.
With years of business and marketing experience, Debbie, a graduate of Princeton and Columbia Business School, has also been a force behind some of Child Mind’s most successful public education initiatives. More than 20 million people have used CMI’s encyclopedic website; nearly a million parents have used its online “symptom checker”; and more than 500,000 people follow CMI on social media.
Debbie is a role model to many. The first female CEO in Revlon’s 86-year history. A mother of four. A leader who, colleagues say, “thinks big” and is “creative” and also “serious and decisive.”
Who would Debbie say has inspired her nonprofit service?
First, she says, her daughter Maia, but also her parents and grandparents, who instilled in her the concept of giving back and impactful philanthropy. And second, her fellow board members and the staff at Child Mind Institute, whom she calls “incredible pillars.”
For her passionate and tireless leadership to advance the frontiers of children’s mental health care and help children and families in need, United Hospital Fund is proud to present Debbie Perelman with the 2018 Distinguished Community Service Award.
Reprinted from the 2018 United Hospital Fund Gala program.