Educate about Mental Illness Research

Mental Illness and Research

Brain disorders, especially mental illness and addiction, place the greatest burden (18.7%) on Americans of any group of diseases, more than heart disease (16.8%) or cancer (15.1%).

Disease Burden vs Federal Funding (click to expand)

Mood and anxiety disorders carry the largest burden, often co-occurring with addictions.

You might think that we fund our research efforts to reflect these burdens—the greater the burden, the more the research effort—but in fact we spend much less on mental disorders than we should.

The gold standards for sustained, successful research efforts are cancer and AIDS. Through the US National Institutes of Health, we spend more than $5 billion each year on cancer, an investment that is paying off in declining cancer mortality and a host of therapies just around the corner. Even more impressive is the war on AIDS—in little more than a decade, AIDS went from horrible killer to chronic manageable disease, thanks to an unprecedented research effort. The mental illnesses are comparable to cancer (neoplasms) in burden: Imagine what we could do for mental illness with another $1 billion per year in research funding!

Comparing Disease
It’s easy to say that a heart attack is more serious than a cold, but how do health experts determine our greatest health challenges? They use a disability measure called DALYs (disability-adjusted life years) that asks how many days do you lose from work and how much did you suffer during those days. This allows some approximation of how much and how long people suffer with a disorder, and can help us set research priorities. The great burden of mental illnesses is due in part to the fact that people develop most mental disorders in childhood and adolescence and live for a long time with them.


To find out more…

Mental Disorders as Brain Disorders, TEDxCalTech, Thomas Insel, January 18, 2013
“Mental Health and the Global Agenda,” New England Journal of Medicine, July 4, 2013
Economic Burden of Mental Illness Cannot be Tackled Without Research Investment, Mental Health Foundation (United Kingdom) report, 2010

Mental Illness and the Brain

“It’s all up in your brain!” …And in one way, it really is. All our thoughts, emotions, memories reside in that web of billions of brain cells, each as complicated as a computer in its own right. The human brain has been called “the most complex object in the universe,” so it’s not surprising that we are just beginning to learn how it works. We will need to know a lot more about its basic functions before we can really begin to understand what goes wrong in mental illnesses.

Here are some things we need to understand about the brain and mental illness:

  • Why are the brain circuits that control fear (so critical for keeping us alive in prehistoric times) sometimes activated by things that are not threatening, leading to crippling anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder?
  • Our moods change all the time, because of daily events or major life events and thanks to daily fluctuations in our bodies. Why is it that for some people, this emotional thermostat fluctuates widely from ecstatic highs or lows, or gets stuck in the depressive lows?
  • People with schizophrenia usually don’t hear voices, or have elaborate delusions of persecution until the onset of their symptoms, typically in late adolescence. What changes for them in the brain circuits that evaluate real vs. internal “sounds” and events?
  • Medicines help some people with mental illness more than others. Can we predict, based on factors such as genetic make-up or biomarkers, who will respond who will not. Similarly, some people develop side-effects; can we predict who will?

To find out more…

NIMH (Nation Institute of Mental Health) Brain Basics
NIMH Mental Health Information
Brain Explorer
Five-Minute Film Festival: Learning and the Brain,
“What Is the Language of the Brain?” Guy McKhann, M.D., February 27, 2014
The Remarkable Neuron, TEDxCaltech, Erin Schuman, January 18, 2013
Five Major Mental Disorders Share Genetic Roots, NIMH Science Update, March 1, 2013

Social Science and the Environment

But it’s not all about the brain! We interact with our environments from the day we’re born, and even earlier, in the womb. Researchers from fields as varied as epidemiology, psychology, and sociology are trying to determine how the environment and social interaction affects when, how, and why people develop mental illness.

Here are some examples of things we need to understand about the relationships between behavior, the environment, and mental illness:

  • Why do some people respond to stress by developing mental illnesses whereas others do not? For example, daily life stresses can induce depression or anxiety, and major changes like moving to a city or to a new country increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
  • Why are social interactions more difficult for people with autism or schizophrenia?
  • For which mental disorders are psychotherapies effective? When do medications and psychotherapies complement each other?
  • How do factors as varied as housing, training, or stigma affect the lives of people with mental illness?

To find out more…

Environmental Connections: A Deeper Look into Mental Illness, Environmental Health Perspectives, Charles W. Schmidt, August 2007
Yale Researchers Search for Earliest Roots of Psychiatric Disorders, Bill Hathaway, April 10, 2014
Brain Region Singled Out for Social Memory, Possible Therapeutic Target for Select Brain Disorders, NIMH Science Update, March 13, 2014