Research Director at MQ: Transforming Mental Health, Dr Sophie Dix argues that now is the time is now for mental health research
One in four adults in the UK is directly affected by mental illness each year. This is a huge number of people experiencing conditions that can have very significant, very personal impacts on their day to day life, and yet we have so little in the way of explanation.
We have gaps in knowledge about why some people develop mental illness and some don’t. We don’t know the best treatment for each individual. And we don’t know enough about how to identify those most at risk so we can intervene earlier.
The sad truth today is that getting an accurate diagnosis can take years. Even then, a painful period of trial-and-error often follows until the most appropriate treatment is found. We simply don’t know enough to personalise treatments, both medicines and talking therapies, so that people get the right treatment at the right time.
The good news is that mental health is high on the agenda, like never before. The growing public dialogue around mental health has been exceptional. Members of the royal family have begun campaigning on the issue, successive governments have made mental health a priority, and powerful personal experiences are being shared globally. The days of unspoken conditions are, slowly but surely, giving way to an open and honest conversation about mental health. Providing people with space and the confidence to speak out and tackle stigma.
This is a fantastic first step in the journey of taking on mental illness. This is, however, just a first step. The key to real, lasting change is research.
We know that research has the power to transform lives, as seen so clearly when we look at physical health. Survival rates for cancer have been increased exponentially and HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. A better understanding of an illness and the opportunity to explore treatments, and even cures, is only possible when we invest in research.
The potential to make this happen for mental health is real. The UK is a world leader in the mental health research field and technologies are providing a newer, faster way to make advances.
However, a lack of funding and prioritisation of research means that too many opportunities are being missed. Despite affecting 23% of the population, only 5.8% of UK health research is spent on mental health. At the moment, mental health research currently receives 22 times less funding than cancer research per person affected – a stark differential that lets down generations of people living with a mental illness.
At MQ, we’re working hard to change the picture. We support over 41 projects internationally, investigating a huge range of conditions: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and more.
We’re an example of an organisation that is funding research to make an impact now and for future generations. We know that 75% of mental illness begins in young people, so we’re investing in a flagship programme to understand what puts young people at risk and identify new ways of intervening early.
By focusing on areas of huge potential, like data science, we are utilising a wealth of information to stimulate new answers to some of the most pressing challenges in mental health. And we’re connecting researchers internationally to share learnings and deepen understanding.
Critically, to deliver the long-term shift needed in mental health research, we’re also building an unprecedented movement of public support – working with people affected scientists, businesses, government and members of the public to make mental health research a national and international priority.
Progress won’t happen overnight. But the stories we hear every day about the challenges they face in getting the right help for their mental health demonstrates why the prize is worth fighting for. And with more and more people demanding better, now is the time for research to give hope in the future.