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At the NAMI Annual Convention

Hakon Heimer and Noelle Tan in booth at NAMI convention

Hakon Heimer and volunteer Noelle Tan at the Cure Alliance booth.

Cure Alliance is just back from the annual convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Washington, DC. We had a booth in the exhibits area, where a steady stream of people stopped by to learn about what we are doing, and to sign our petition calling for more research on mental illness. Perhaps some of you visited us there!

It was an energizing trip, not least because of the impassioned advocates at the meeting–we got to see Patrick Kennedy, Creigh Deeds, Demi Lovato, and NAMI President Mary Gilberti fire up the crowds on NAMI’s National Day of Action, before NAMI members made their visits to Capitol Hill to convince their legislators to pay attention to the burden of mental illness.

We also saw Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), give the Research Plenary on Saturday morning (see the video). He is eloquent and passionate about the urgent need to know more about mental illnesses in order to save the lives that are lost—lost to suicide, lost to poor or no recovery, lost to other health problems, which are so often undertreated in people with mental illness. It is this research message that Cure Alliance wants to make a critical part of any advocacy effort to American policymakers. (Dr. Insel writes an informative and interesting blog, which you can find here.)

(There were also individual sessions on research developments related to particular disorders, which we will summarize in a future blog entry. In the meantime, slides and other materials from some of the talks are available on NAMI’s website.)

All Boats

The advocates we met were generally enthusiastic about the need for more research on mental illness, but they had wide-ranging ideas about what that research should focus on. Some were hopeful that safe effective treatment would come from basic research in genetics and neuroscience, whereas others thought there was too much focus on the brain and not enough on other causes of mental illness—the environment or trauma, for example—or research on current treatment or services options. Cure Alliance for Mental Illness takes the position that our first order of business is to raise the level of funding for mental illness research as a whole—the old New England adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. Every field of study should derive some benefits from better resources.

So what is the current state of mental illness research at NIMH, the largest single funder of research on mental illness in the world? Actually, over half the non-AIDS grant funding given out by NIMH for the current fiscal year is going to translational research, which aims to take knowledge from basic research and translate it into better and safer treatments, and to research on services and interventions (the orange and yellow slices of the pie chart below).

NIMH research funding

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The largest single category for grants funded is Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science (the green slice of pie). This includes both biological and behavioral research to discover more about how brains work and how that influences thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and it seems like a reasonable investment of resources. Our brains are the engines of our behavior, and they are the place in our bodies where mental illness alters how we think, feel, and act. The brain is what is affected by environmental influences like trauma. In order to make a huge step forward in how we treat mental illnesses, we need to know more about how the human brain is built during infant, child, and adolescent development through a complicated interplay of nature (genes) and nurture (everything that a growing brain experiences). Only then can we develop better treatments—better psychosocial treatments, better medications, and perhaps methods that nobody has yet thought of.

We got the impression that a lot of people at the NAMI Convention agreed with us. And we are thrilled to have made so many new friends in the fight to cure mental illness.

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