Published May 06, 2016
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Since their daughter was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel have created a foundation in her honor, funded research to help understand the underpinnings of violence and spoken on brain health around the country.
On Saturday, the two are being honored for their advocacy by the psychiatry department at the Yale School of Medicine.
"The brain is just another organ and you don't have to be a neuroscientist to recognize that it can be healthy, it can be unhealthy, and that you need to feel comfortable advocating for your own brain health and the brain health of your loved ones," Richman said. "We feel that the failure to do that led in large part to the tragedy at Sandy Hook."
The couple's 6-year-old daughter, Avielle, was among 20 children and six educators killed inside the Newtown school by a troubled, socially isolated gunman with a semi-automatic rifle on Dec. 14, 2012. The gunman also fatally shot his mother and killed himself after carrying out the rampage.
The Avielle Foundation was created within months of the tragedy with the goal of reducing violence.
For Richman, the work has become a full-time pursuit. He left his job as a researcher at the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim to dedicate himself to the foundation. Last year, he also received an appointment as a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale's medical school.
Richman and Hensel, a medical writer with her own company, still live in Newtown and are raising an 18-month-old daughter, Imogen Joy.
Their foundation is providing grants for projects on topics including the effects that abuse, neglect and adversity have on the brain and the links between behavior and biochemistry. The foundation also helped launch a scientific journal, Violence and Gender, that focuses on understanding and preventing acts of violence. And it has focused on communicating its insights through ways such as talks with Congress, the Girl Scouts and other groups.
Richman said he has been encouraged by developments such as the 2013 White House launch of the BRAIN Initiative, to improve understanding of the human mind. But the field needs more study, he said.
"We don't feel we've gone far enough yet getting out the message that there are biochemical, tangible explanations for behaviors," he said.
Richman and Hensel will be the featured speakers at an annual neuroscience symposium Saturday, when they will receive the Yale Mental Health Research Advocacy Award. Other winners over the past 25 years have included television personality Dick Cavett, who openly discussed his struggles with depression, and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who has written of his diagnoses of bipolar and anxiety disasters.
John Krystal, chairman of the psychiatry department at the Yale University School of Medicine who is also an adviser to the Avielle Foundation, said Richman and Hensel have played an important role in raising awareness of big gaps in the understanding of causes and treatments for violent behavior.
"It's extremely commendable what they've done," he said.