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More Research? … Why?

No Kidding! Me 2! movie poster

Joe Pantoliano directed a powerful documentary about mental illness, and started an organization of the same name.

Cure Alliance for Mental Illness is a new organization, still looking for supporters, collaborators, and friends. Recently we had a dialogue with prominent Hollywood mental illness advocate Joe Pantoliano (founder of No Kidding? Me Too!) about our call for more research. He said:

“I would rather see new money go to treatment for the suffering. Research has already proven that mental ‘dis-ease’ is 50% genetic, the rest being the result of our environment. What I want to see happen is this. Our brain must have the same insurance coverage as our other vital organs. We are not alone. Mental unrest is here to stay. What is available right now is recovery, peace of mind, coping skills.”

This is an understandable response—right now, people with mental illness do not have access to the full range of support and treatment to aid in their recovery. We agree that more money must go toward treatment for people suffering today, and that insurance coverage for mental illnesses is extremely important.

But we do not agree that “mental unrest is here to stay”—at least not that mental illness is just something we must accept and live with. “Recovery, peace of mind, coping skills”—these are extremely valuable elements of living with mental illness, but we created Cure Alliance because we don’t think that’s enough.

Better treatments for everyone

One important thing to say is that treatment funds and research funds come from different pots of money. In the research pot, many other disorders get more money than mental illness relative to their burden. We need a “fair funding formula” that would increase research on mental disorders to reflect their great toll on individuals and on society.

Disease burden vs NIH funding chart

Mental illness has a greater burden than both cancer and AIDS, yet receives less government funding for research.

Another primary reason we formed Cure Alliance is that for many people, especially with severe mental illness, the existing treatments are only partly effective, and often come with heavy side-effects. For many people with autism, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, the best treatments currently available are still not good enough. True, many people are living rich lives with mental illness, but too many others are partly or fully disabled.

And it’s true, as Joe says, that genes and the environment both contribute to mental disorders, but the organ that both are working upon is the brain.  Mental illnesses are brain disorders because the brain is where our thoughts and emotions happen. Research on the biological basis of mental illness does not ignore the complicated interplay of “nature and nurture.” Instead, researchers are trying to understand it better, to come up with better treatments—maybe even cures. 

Big BRAINS, not small potatoes

But to do that, we need to know a great deal more. We need to put more resources into understanding our brains—to really untangle all of what makes an individual brain work a certain way. President Obama’s BRAIN initiative is a great start. About $100 million dollars is pledged in 2014 to get this effort started. As a basis for comparison, the Mars Curiosity mission cost $312 million per year for 8 years (for a total of $2.5 billion). The point is not to compare the importance of these two things, but to put $100 million into perspective. It’s not actually that much money, where science is concerned! We value the benefits we hope to gain from the $2.5 billion spent on Curiosity, but what value would we place on understanding the brain and how it goes off the tracks in brain disorders?

So we’ll continue to advocate for more funding for mental illness research. We hope many others (maybe even Joe!) will join us. People with mental illness need services and treatment now, but we think that much better services and treatments can be available in the future, with more research.

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