Scientific Prizes Bring Needed Attention to Mental Health Research

Conceptual brain image; psychiatric disorders. (Image credit: Dreamstime.)

Dr. Herbert Pardes is executive vice chairman of the board of trustees at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and president of the Scientific Council of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation — and last year was the first to win the prize that now bears his name. Pardes contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

This fall, scientists around the world will trade lab coats for tuxes and ball gowns for the annual "award season" announcements of the Nobel Prize, the MacArthur Foundation fellowships, the Lasker Awards, and the star-studded and televised Breakthrough Prize awards. These prizes, each accompanied by significant monetary awards, shine a much-needed spotlight on important scientific research that, in the past, the media has often considered too dense and academic to be of interest to the public.

We are in a day and age when one of television's biggest comedy hits, "The Big Bang Theory," is about the lives of Caltech Ph.D.s, when biopics about Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking win Oscars, and when Hawking hobnobs with a Russian billionaire to search for extraterrestrial life. Suddenly, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the "STEM" fields) have acquired a glamorous sheen that is attracting people with deep pockets who want to accelerate the often slow, deliberate and bureaucratic march toward new findings and cures.

Philanthropy has a place in research

Many in the scientific community are worried by a trend in which wealth trumps peer reviews, grant applications and selection committees, but many philanthropists are serious, knowledgeable, deeply committed and determined to find cures for the most intractable diseases.

For those of us who have devoted our lives to scientific research, there is a lot to appreciate about this new world order. 

In today's funding environment, the most significant inroads to scientific discovery will likely be generated by a combination of public and private funding from people with a vested stake in finding cures. Just look at the progress made by public-private partnerships such as the American Cancer Society in reducing mortality from breast, lung and colon cancer, and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation — which supported the development of Kalydeco, the first drug to treat an underlying cause of the disease — through its "venture philanthropy."

Federal funding for scientific research has sharply declined over the past 10 years, and dwindling resources have led to the erosion of federal grants, lab closures and diminished incentives for all scientists and, consequently, the loss of talented young researchers. 

Even so, private philanthropy still lags behind public funding. The U.S. National Institutes of Health's (NIH) yearly budget is $31 billion, half of which goes toward basic science — the backbone of most scientific discoveries but lacking the allure to attract the wealthiest philanthropists. 

Within that agency, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has an annual budget of $1.4 billion, a figure that has declined more than 10 percent in the past five years when adjusted for inflation, meaning a substantial decrease in funding for both basic research and clinical trials. In fact, private funding is now helping to drive the kind of high-risk, high-reward research that may change lives and end the suffering that psychiatric illnesses bring to so many. 

Improving care for mental health

During my career, I have been privileged to work in both the public and private sectors. In 1984, I left my position as director of the NIMH to become chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University because I felt I could accomplish more on the outside. 

Early in those early days, I set up an annual information symposium about mental health for the public, featuring scientists talking about psychiatric research in plain English. This event attracted hundreds of people starved for information, and enhanced the work of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF), which funds innovative ideas in neuroscience and psychiatry to understand the causes of brain and behavior disorders, and find better ways to diagnose and treat them. Grant recipients are selected by the foundation’s Scientific Council, which comprises 165 leading experts across disciplines in brain and behavior research, including two Nobel laureates; four former directors of the NIMH; 13 members of the National Academy of Sciences; 21 chairs of Psychiatry and Neuroscience Departments at leading medical institutions; and 47 members of the Institute of Medicine.

Since 1987, the foundation has awarded 5,000 grants worth nearly $340 million. More importantly, it has seeded the research of an entire generation of brilliant young neuroscientists and clinicians who have gone on to obtain $3 billion in additional funding for their work. This is a philanthropic model worthy of emulation. 

The field of mental health has come a long way since I visited a state hospital for the first time as a college sophomore in 1953. I will never forget what I saw — a naked man locked in an empty room, smearing his feces on the wall. 

Today, people living with mental illness certainly have access to more help, and scientists are making great strides in basic research, new technologies, next-generation therapies and early interventions. 

There are about 320 million Americans, and approximately one in four live day-to-day with mental illness. An influx of veterans are coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and suicide, and have raised awareness and aroused sympathy for people with psychiatric disorders. However, high-profile, violent incidents involving people with mental illness continue to reinforce lingering stigmas. Decades after the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill patients, the United States still lacks adequate community support, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses and hospital beds. Many people go untreated, and there are more people with psychiatric illnesses in prison than in psychiatric hospitals.

An award to address a crisis

So much more needs to be done. How do we let people know about this epidemic? How can we get the NIH, the NIMH and the U.S. Congress, more specifically, to increase funding for research into mental illness? How does mental health become a top priority so that help is available to all who need it?

These problems have deep roots, and solutions are elusive and complex. That's why it is so important that scientists continue conducting basic and clinical research to understand how the healthy human brain gives rise to the miracle of thought and consciousness, and how genetic, cellular and circuit anomalies lead to the full panoply of brain disorders. [The Singularity, Virtual Immortality and the Trouble with Consciousness (Op-Ed)]

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Partly because of the logjam in Washington, enlightened philanthropists have never had a more important role to play in driving brain research forward. Though it is difficult to imagine what our ultrapartisan political system can accomplish, Congress must find ways to fund mental health research. Simultaneously, generous philanthropists must provide support.

This October, I'm honored that the Brain & Behavior Foundation will present the Pardes Prize — a $300,000 award recognizing humanitarians striving to change the way the world views mental illness through education, prevention, research, clinical care, mentoring, treatment or advocacy for both individuals and policies that affect mental health. 

Society has found ways of recognizing contributions in basic science, clinical research and clinical care in the nonpsychiatric health fields, but the field of mental health in psychiatry is complex and affects people throughout the world. With this prize, we hope to expand the care, treatment and understanding of the underlying causes of mental illness, and reduce the pain these conditions cause individuals and their families. 

I'll happily put on my tuxedo to call attention to issues surrounding mental illness. It is time to stop talking about helping people with mental illness and actually do something to help them lead productive lives.

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