Eight ways we’re improving mental health

In the UK, one in four people will develop a mental health condition and three-quarters of these people will receive no treatment. In low- and middle-income countries, treatment rates are even lower. For Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, Dr Raliza Stoyanova, our neuroscience and mental health senior portfolio developer, explains eight approaches we’re taking to help people living with these debilitating but little understood conditions.

Illustration of mindfulness as the brain being watered with a can
This drawing is one of a series that began when the artist was a patient in a day centre.
Credit: Bobby Baker, Wellcome Images

1. Access

When we know treatments work, it’s vital that people can access them. Decades of research we have funded led to enhanced cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-E) being recommended as a treatment for all eating disorders in the NHS. We’ve also supported a new form of online training for therapists to deliver CBT-E so that the treatment can be implemented quickly.

2. Task-shifting

Diagnosing and treating mental health conditions is a particularly big challenge in low- and middle- income countries, where resources are scarce. We hope ‘task-shifting’ – when skills from mental health specialists are taught to non-specialists – can tackle this. We’re funding a project in Goa to train non-specialist health workers to deliver psychosocial interventions, including yoga and interpersonal therapy, to help young people with mental health problems.

3. Prevention 

Just as physical training is associated with improved physical health, we think psychological resilience training could lead to better mental health outcomes, and prevent mental health conditions. To test the theory, we’re funding a large-scale trial studying the effectiveness of mindfulness in nearly 6,000 11-13 year olds across the UK.

4. Genetics

We know that someone’s genetic make-up can play a part in why they develop a mental health condition. The discovery of the first robust genetic links to depression came from a study we funded of Chinese women with and without depression. It will take a long time and much more research, but we hope studying the genetic variants will reveal biological pathways in the brain that could be targeted by new therapies.

5. Subtypes

There are many combinations of symptoms and risk factors that all lead to the same diagnosis of depression. We’re funding a large study in Scotland to understand whether there are actually different subtypes of depression, and why some people develop the illness while others don’t. With a better picture of these subtypes we can improve diagnostic tests and develop more tailored therapies.

6. Technology

Technology can have an enormous impact on mental health conditions. A project we’ve funded found that computer avatars could help people with schizophrenia who still hear persecutory voices despite taking antipsychotic drugs. Another project we funded shows that playing Tetris can reduce flashbacks of traumatic events, and may be a promising treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

7. Drugs

Developing and testing new medicines to treat mental health disorders is very challenging – we can’t routinely biopsy a patient’s brain, and we can’t make animal models that completely mimic mental health disorders. We now think there’s a promising link between the immune system and depression, so we’re helping to fund a study to see if re-purposed anti-inflammatory drugs might help to reduce the symptoms of depression. If this approach works, there is an added benefit because these medicines are already approved for human use.

8. Education

It’s crucial patients feel the benefits of cutting-edge neuroscience and mental health research as quickly as possible. To do this, we’ve helped fund a project to make sure the curriculum for trainee psychiatrists is up to date with the advances of basic and clinical neuroscience. This will help clinicians embrace current and future developments in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions.