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Heyday of mental health research approaching, say researchers

Mental health is likely to be the next research field to be tackled on an international scale, Graham Thornicroft, the head of Health Service and Population Research Department at the Institute of Psychiatry, has said.

Just as malaria and vaccine research have flourished through recent waves of political will, international efforts to highlight the neglect of mental health are coming to fruition, he said.

Thornicroft was speaking at a briefing in London on 6 July to launch the Grand Challenges in Global Mental Health Initiative.

The initiative, led by the US National Institutes of Health and the London-based Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases, drew on more than 400 clinicians from 60 countries to create a list of research priorities for the next 10 years.

Published on 7 July in the journal Nature, the priorities include identifying blood, neurological and genetic biomarkers for mental health disorders.

They also include a greater focus on environmental and behavioural factors, treating mental health disorders as life-long illnesses, as well as research into root causes of disease onset, such as early foetal development.

“This signals a remarkable and extraordinary point for mental health, against a background of scandalous neglect,” said Thornicroft. “The relative under-funding of mental health research is an element of a systematic or structural discrimination against mental health as a whole.”

The UK spends just 3.5 per cent of its health research budget on mental health, compared to 9.6 per cent in Australia and 7.1 per cent in the US, he said. Collectively these disorders account for more years of life lost than cardiovascular disease or cancer.

The Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and National Institute for Health Research are now making strides to rectify the “grossly disproportionate” spending in the field, added Thornicroft.

Science was ready to make great leaps into clinical practice, but scientific ambition was outstripping funding available, added Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge. Widespread screening for early signs of Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, for example, were just over the horizon, she said.

Shitij Kapur, head of psychological medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, said the UK also faced a shortage of researchers and specialist practitioners.

“We need some 500 new doctors [specialising] in psychiatry every year. We often have difficulty filling those numbers,” he said.

“We have a chicken and egg problem,” he added. “The funding agencies say they don’t see enough projects proposals. But we don’t see that because we don’t have enough training clinicians and scientists.”