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Mental health research needs a boost. It is an area that receives nowhere near as much in public donations as research into cancer or heart disease does. The pharmaceutical industry shies away from it and some say it is a less attractive field for young bright scientists to move in to.
Others argue that psychological treatments are perceived as less scientific. This leaves researchers struggling to compete in neuroscience for highly sought after government funding. Yet mental health comes top of a list of public interests for research.
Two charities that provide funding for mental health research are working to tackle the problem.
Mental Health Research UK was set up in 2008 when one of the trustees, Clair Chilvers, then a civil servant, discovered there were no charities dedicated purely to mental health research. They provide scholarships and funding for PhD students. Meanwhile, MQ: Transforming Mental Health was set up in 2013 with £20m from the Wellcome Trust to provide funding for postdoctoral fellows across the academic spectrum. They made their first awards in late 2013.
Chilvers says that although 23% of ill health is attributable to mental illness, 5.5% of research funding is on mental health. For every £1 the UK government spends on research, the public gives a third of a penny to mental health research compared with £2.75 in cancer and £1.35 in cardiovascular disease. This is despite the fact that the economic and social cost of mental health in England is £105bn.
“We look to the government, the research councils and to some extent the Wellcome Trust – but that’s it really, that’s all we’ve got” says Antony David, professor of cognitive neuroscience at King’s College London.
David says it is this situation that is putting early career researchers off. It’s sometimes a battle to keep talented young scientists interested in mental health, as the funding path is unclear.
It’s a catch 22 situation, he says, as the science can not develop without more minds working on it. “Boards at the Wellcome Trust have to decide whether to fund Parkinson’s disease or motor neurone disease or schizophrenia or depression and there aren’t as many hard facts about the last two,” David says. “We don’t know exactly what the genetic basis is or the brain pathology. It might be safer for scientists to plump for the tried and tested neurological conditions.”
He adds: “While the pharmaceutical industry could do well commercially from drugs, it shies away from this area of research and development, limiting the opportunities for scientists to collaborate with them.”
Andrea Reinecke, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, faced this uncertain situation herself when she wanted to move from postdoctoral work to running her own research projects.
This January she started a fellowship funded by MQ to develop her work on an effective one-hour cognitive behavioral therapy session that can treat people with panic disorders.
“As soon as psychological treatment development comes into play my competitiveness gets reduced as it may not be seen as very evidence-based or very scientific. That is actually a pretty wrong perception these days as we have treatments that are strongly based on learning theory,” she says.
But some argue that applications in this area are not necessarily less successful.
Robin Buckle, director of science programmes at the Medical Research Council, says they did an analysis in 2009 of psychiatry applications to the Medical Research Council in relation to other areas and found that the reward rate was not significantly different but the number of applications they received was lower, particularly for fellowships.
MQ and notable researchers in the field of psychology and mental health are calling for all related disciplines to come together to work more closely under an umbrella title “mental health science”.
Emily Holmes, a professor in the cognition and brain sciences unit at the University of Cambridge, wrote in the journal Nature last summer that evidence-based psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy are yet to benefit from advances in neuroscience – and vice versa neuroscience is not fully aware of the potential of these treatments. She calls for cross-disciplinary mental health science to bring out the benefits of treatments that already exist and to develop new ones.
It’s often harder to define causes and outcomes of mental health problems and to show the public what research can do – this adds to the challenge of obtaining charitable funding. According to Vanessa Pinfold of the McPin Foundation, it has been easier to ask for £3 to send a mosquito net than to articulate a need for mental health research.
MQ say we are at a tipping point. “People are talking about it more than ever before and attitudes are now starting to change. Now is the time to make the case for research,” says Neil Balmer, a spokesperson for the charity.
Early career researcher Reinecke agrees and says that emphasising the rigorous science that goes behind treatments like talking therapies is a place to start. “One of the most important targets of a mental health charity will be to increase public acceptance for mental health problems as being clear-cut, objectively measurable illnesses, and awareness for the effectiveness of psychological treatment. We have come a very long way since Freud’s sofa.”