How We Can Discover New Treatments for Mental Health

12/07/2017 01:36 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2017

How We Can Discover New Treatments for Mental Health

“I was so afraid of germs that I couldn’t change my own daughter’s diaper,” Jennifer says with tears welling in her eyes. After bringing her baby from the hospital nearly a decade ago, she felt “an injection of anxiety,” and describes, “I spent so much time washing her clothes and cleaning her bottles and disinfecting myself that I wasn’t sleeping – I was alone and desperate.” She says in a whispering voice, “I thought then I had to give her up for adoption.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is that it is merely a personality quirk. As a clinical psychiatrist and researcher, I see first-hand the impact OCD has on people like Jennifer. For half of newly diagnosed adults, standard recommended treatments for OCD (medications and cognitive behavior therapy) will help them achieve a meaningful reduction in their symptoms. That’s good news for those suffering. But the other half continue to have symptoms that can limit their lives.

I study new pathways having the potential to rapidly (within hours) relieve OCD symptoms. I also work to understand how we can target treatment to brain OCD circuits. Yet, while we have some important advances, we need additional research to discover novel treatments that will effectively prevent or treat OCD. This OCD research stands to also positively impact treatments for depression, anxiety, suicide, schizophrenia, autism, eating disorders and many other serious mental illnesses, because underlying brain circuit abnormalities may be shared across diagnoses.

Patients and their family members often ask me, what can be done to advance research that produces new treatments? Here are three ways we all can start, today:

1. Inform Yourself and Inspire Others

Take time to learn more about mental illness, serving as a local ambassador for awareness. If you read about a captivating research or treatment discovery, send it to a friend or post the link on your website to inspire others to learn more. One good source for information is the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).

Created by President Truman in 1949, the NIMH is the largest funder of mental illness research in the world. Its mission is to “transform the understanding and treatment of mental illness through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure.”

The NIMH also contributes to novel approaches to mental disorders by community outreach. Since 2004, the NIMH has annually hosted the NIMH Alliance for Research Progress, a group of patient and family advocates representing national volunteer nonprofit organizations. The group is convened to discuss research priorities and advances, and allow the NIMH Director and staff to hear the views and concerns of representatives of stakeholder groups regarding its research. NIMH Director, Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., convened the twenty-fourth meeting of this group (see photo below). Topics included improving suicide risk and detection, novel treatments for opioid dependence, rapid-acting treatments for OCD, improving our understanding and treatment of depression, and advancing family-centered research, which involves collaboration with consumers to design, implement, and disseminate child mental health research. To find out more click here.

The NIMH Director also directly posts messages about current research findings and the new initiatives of the NIMH at Director’s Messages

2. Be an Advocate for Mental Health

There is strength in numbers. The NIMH Partnership Outreach program works with over 75 nonprofit organizations throughout the country. For a list click here.

You can join an advocacy group that focuses on an individual mental health issue, or join an organized network for federal and state advocacy like the American Psychiatric Association Engage Initiative.

You also can visit charitable foundations for information on latest advances from research they have sponsored, such as:

3. Participate in Research

Joining a clinical trial is a helpful way to advance new treatments. Medications now helpful to countless individuals would not be available without the volunteers who joined clinical trials. For more information, see the NIH information page for participants.

a. Search www.clinicaltrials.gov, the nationwide NIH registry of federally funded and privately funded clinical trials for a wide variety of conditions

b. Join a national registry like ResearchMatch, a free, secure, NIH-funded initiative to connect individuals seeking research studies and researchers seeking people to participate.

Here are some resources to get help if there is a Crisis for You or a Loved One (Hotlines):

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your confidential and toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals. If the situation is potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.

Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area.

Behavioral Health Treatment Locator is a confidential and anonymous source of information on the SAMHSA website for persons seeking treatment facilities in the United States or U.S. Territories for substance abuse/addiction and/or mental health problems.

Ben Zweig (DCEventPhoto)
NIMH Alliance for Research Progress speakers (left to right): Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., NIMH Director; Gloria Reeves, M.D., University of Maryland School of Medicine; Nora Volkow, M.D., NIDA Director; Argyris Stringaris, M.D., Ph.D., MRCPsych, NIMH Division of Intramural Research Programs; Carolyn Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., Stanford University; Tammy Clough, University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Shelli Avenevoli, Ph.D., NIMH Deputy Director. September 15, 2017.

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Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez is a psychiatrist and researcher at Stanford University. Dr. Rodriguez’s work extends to raising awareness of mental illness, decreasing stigma, and advocating for more mental health research.

Learn more about our advocacy and research on rapid-acting treatments on our website:

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