“You Can Imagine” – Reframing Mental Health to Brain Health with Dr. Jeremy Richman

“You Can Imagine” – Reframing Mental Health to Brain Health with Dr. Jeremy Richman

I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people in my life that have influenced the way I think about things. However, the day I met Jeremy Richman was different. After telling me that his 6-year old daughter, Avielle, was murdered in her first grade classroom at Sandy Hook, he soon followed with three words…

”You Can Imagine.”

Since that encounter, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Jeremy and hope you will too. It turns out, I’m one of the lucky ones. My life has been pretty good. I was privileged to grow up and have a childhood without trauma. Dr. Jeremy Richman is a neuroscientist and introduced me to a whole new way of thinking. He shifted my mindset to understand the meaning of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Protective Factors, which now drives our curriculum at Noble Impact.

Joe Pucci is a young man I met this past summer. He is a New York City native that attends Hamilton College and is very curious about life…especially in relation to education and how he might be able to make a difference. We are years apart in age but very close in how we view the world. He took a leap of faith and joined us this past summer at the University of Arkansas to take part in our Noble Impact facilitation of the Fleischer Scholars Program. Not only did he do great job but he had great interest in our curriculum and wanted to know more. So I asked if he’d be interested in interviewing Jeremy in order to gain further insight. Of course, he said yes.

Below is Joe’s recap of the conversation he had with Dr. Jeremy Richman.

In the brisk, dark morning of December 14, 2012…

20 children and 6 educators were ruthlessly massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Among the victims was 6-year-old Avielle ‘Avie’ Richman. As I prepared to interview her father, Jeremy, I grew increasingly uneasy at the idea of asking him to reminisce on this day. “I don’t want him to have to relive that experience,” I thought. Before I brought it up, he began describing that morning. My core was shaken. A knot developed in my stomach. This is what Jeremy wants. Not because he enjoys my suffering, but because it’s the only way I’ll develop compassion and want to do something with it.

Jeremy needs us to imagine that day — to put ourselves there and to feel the associated emotions. This goes against the common, well-intentioned response, “I can’t imagine…” But we can, and we must. Only then will we begin to care. This is why “You Can Imagine” is the trademark slogan of The Avielle Foundation. When we do this, we are subconsciously building compassion for those in that situation. Ultimately, compassion is what will drive people’s support for the cause, but it is also what will prevent people from committing violent acts.

This is a simple, logical, and powerful progression, but it is one that is uncommon and often deemed an abstract or ‘soft’ approach to curbing violence. Instead, we constantly focus on negative solutions that don’t seek to affect change in the individual.

According to Jeremy, the top three are guns, safety, and brain health. Many people use the term “mental health” but Jeremy reframes to the organ in which it affects…the brain. These solutions don’t ask the important question of WHY someone would act violently.

“We need to have some very serious introspection and open discussions about what responsibilities come with the right to bare arms – we have become very irresponsible in this arena and tens of thousands of Americans have paid a tragic price as a result.”

Banning guns won’t stop people from thinking violently.

Surely our schools should be safe spaces, but vastly increasing protection is a temporary solution. Violent people will still figure out places or ways in which to be violent. And our fascination with mental health doesn’t actually get us anywhere. Instead we need to begin considering the reframe of mental health to brain health, which Jeremy believes to be a start.

“[The word] Mental is intangible and invisible. It doesn’t come with anything of value that you can use as a tool. At best, it’s a label based on symptoms and syndromes. We need to realize that the brain is an organic organ that houses our behaviors, feelings, and memories. If a behavior is abnormal, it must be the tangible, organic consequence of abnormal brain biochemistry or structure.”

With this being said, Jeremy warns us not to get caught up in simple solutions. Analyzing brain health is critical to understanding the roots of one’s actions, but there’s more to it.

“There’s also a fallacy with associating violence with just genetics. For example, if we look at psychopathic behaviors…and see that it existed in their family history, we think that it must be genetic. But it’s also what you learn and know; the experiences you were exposed to. Both are right and wrong. No behavior is just genetic or just environmentally influenced. Behavior is always influenced by both nature and nurture.”

In short, we shouldn’t be focusing on guns, safety, and mental health, but we also can’t get caught up in attributing violence to one thing; it’s complex. Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) has helped us better realize the environmental influences. It showed that the more one is exposed to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as neglect and household dysfunction in their childhood, the more likely they are to be obese, smoke, drink, break bones, fail to graduate high school, engage in a risky life-style, and die younger. However, we can add to this foundation if we begin studying the brain and focusing on ways to improve it.

Guns, safety, and mental health fill our discussions following violent events like those in Sandy Hook, or the recent shootings around our country, but something isn’t working. Violence seems more prevalent than ever. To do something about it, Jeremy is creating a paradigm shift in how we approach these situations. A focus on prevention and intervention rather than solely on reaction. The Avielle Foundation believes in “Preventing Violence and Building Compassion.”


It hinges on the belief that compassion can prevent violent memories, feelings, and behaviors from ever transpiring in the first place. It is admirably grounded in positivity and embodies curiosity, selflessness, passion, and resilience. In tying this back to Jeremy, we can see that his story isn’t defined by the tragedy itself, but rather by his response to it.

Jeremy’s unique, resilient approach can be contextualized even from his earliest experiences. His story begins in the “hippy trippy” 1970s in Boulder, Colorado. The time and place made for an open-minded environment filled with a diversity of people, ideas, and ways of life. Although he left at nine years old, its values are evident in him today: The ability to find compassion and optimism in the face of adversity; The interdisciplinary nature of his work; The discontent with the status quo. It’s prevalent in his identity.

His adolescent years continued in the sprawling, then small town of Tucson, Arizona. Jeremy’s isolated, desert home was shared with his mom, an ESL teacher, his dad, a chemist turned technology expert, and his sister. It’s no wonder that his current endeavors span from neurological research to educational implementation – a rarity in the scientific community.

Shortly after moving, Jeremy’s grandfather was diagnosed with a severe form of Alzheimer’s. He reminisces on how misunderstood the disease was and how hard it was to watch his dad deal with his father’s pain, but says that it was ultimately eye-opening. He was deeply fascinated by how our personalities were dependent on the proper functioning of the brain. As he sought to learn more, it dawned on him how little we actually knew about this organ. But that’s what excited him. He saw an opportunity to make profound discoveries in such an unexplored realm, and that’s exactly what he would wind up doing.

This same curiosity however, did not translate to his early schooling experiences. Considering he was already thinking about brain science, this surprised me. But this is often the case in our school system; we tend to squash creativity, curiosity, and fun (see Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk for more on this). But it also didn’t help that Arizona’s education was ranked 51 out of the 52 states and territories at the time. This left him woefully unprepared for college.

Upon entering the University of Arizona, Jeremy described himself as a “long haired party man who thought good grades came with just showing up.” He would go on to achieve successes in molecular and cellular biology, neuropharmacology and toxicology, and meet his wife, Jennifer, where they’d “geek out together,” but long before this, he was on his way to flunking out.

Things only began to change when a friend of his called him out for complaining, and not studying. He took this to heart. He became aware of his short attention span, inability to effectively manage time, and lack of study skills. But most importantly, he now wanted to do something about it. He began attending study primers at the Human Resource Center, going door-to-door of professors at the university, and generally becoming more proactive. This is the Jeremy I assumed filled his adolescence, but it didn’t. So how’d he end up where he is today?

We tend to mistakenly associate profound thinkers with being exceptional intellects in their youth, but studies have disproven this theory. It turns out that having character, curiosity, and determination is much more important than having a high IQ or getting good grades. As Albert Einstein, who struggled mightily as a child, once said:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

This is part of the reason that he was thrilled to partner with Noble Impact – whose student-centered curriculum focuses on purpose driven outcomes. He believes that Noble is “thinking in an innovative, out of the box fashion to build value, integrity, perseverance, and compassion through emotionally intelligent platforms.” Through The Avielle Foundation, Jeremy and his team are providing profound scientific insight into brain health and the importance of compassion, while Noble is using and facilitating that knowledge in its programming for students and teachers.

On top of this, we now know that our brains are extremely plastic – meaning they change in response to experiences – particularly from three-years-old to the end of adolescence. It doesn’t matter whether those times were good or bad, but it does matter that we learn from them. For many people, it takes a large degree of suffering to develop – as was the case with Jeremy. He nearly flunked out, but he responded and came back stronger.

Many years later – with exponentially greater suffering – the same might be said about his response to Avie’s death. In times like these you are tested immensely. Although it was an “infinitely heartbreaking, unforgettable moment,” Jeremy’s character shined through.

Surely, rage was pent up in him, but he translated it into self-growth and an application for greater good. After Avielle’s murder, Jeremy notes, “Jenn and I, literally within days, decided that we had to do something. We knew that it had to be meaningful, prevent violence, and build compassion in any possible way that we could.”

The resiliency it takes to swiftly respond with action that will prevent others from experiencing their pain is unbelievable. It is selfless. It defines strong character.

It’s been five years. It’s been heartbreaking. What have we done? What will we do?

If you ask Jeremy and Jen, the answer is compassion, and I’m sure Avie would agree.