Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Panelists Share Insights on Mental Health Research and Advocacy

Izzy Okparanta

Mental health in this country is not getting the attention it deserves, says Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30). During Research!America’s 29th Annual Meeting of Members on March 14 in Washington, D.C., Rep. Johnson stressed the importance of early intervention and “assertive community treatment” to successfully address mental illness nationwide.

“Each time we see massive incidents, we get concerned about [mental illness] again,” Rep. Johnson said. “But without those massive incidents, we still have the problem and don’t want it to be manifested in that fashion before we give it attention.” She was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting.

Following Rep. Johnson’s remarks, a panel of experts from academia, government, patient advocacy and industry discussed the latest developments in mental health research and potential new treatment targets. MedPage Today news editor Joyce Frieden moderated the discussion.

One Mind president Brandon Staglin said comprehensive early intervention saved him during his first schizophrenic episode in 1990, when he almost took his life. “Good medical treatment combined with community involvement helped me get engaged with life again and back on the road to hope,” Staglin said, adding that he was luckier than the 40,000 Americans who do take their own life each year, 90% of whom experience severe mental illness.

Screening in emergency departments and better follow-up treatment could help achieve a goal of reducing the rate of suicide by 20% by 2025, said Dr. Linda Brady, director, Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The institute is also embracing a new area of research called computational psychiatry, she said. “It’s using experiment-based modeling and simulation to look at phenotypes across mental disorders and to come up with a new way to look at multiple levels of analysis, from genes to cells to circuits, to really understand and find new ways to intervene and treat mental disorders.”

The study of immune markers is another emerging area of science where researchers are making progress, said Dr. Wayne Drevets, scientific vice president and disease area leader, mood disorders, Neuroscience Therapeutic Area, Janssen Research & Development. “There’s increasing knowledge that, at least in a subtype of people who have psychotic disorders and mood disorders, there are changes in the immune system that seem to show valid targets for treatment. So we’re starting to apply, for the first time, biomarkers that might guide you to the right patient for the right treatment.”

Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, expressed excitement about the future of precision medicine as it relates to the treatment of psychiatric conditions. “One of the available treatments for depression is psychotherapy. So think of psychotherapy as the best precision medicine there is. You literally have a treatment that’s being tailored to the person in front of you,” he said. “And certainly we have to get there in the form of treatments that require medication, pharmacological agents or brain stimulation, but it does demonstrate that in the case of psychiatric illness, if you can tune the right thing for the right person you can get a clinical outcome.”

Brain research, Staglin emphasized, needs strong public support. He said people can be effective advocates by learning all they can about the amazing science that’s changing brain health and sharing that information with everyone they know, including legislators. “You can help by building hope in yourself and sharing hope with others,” Staglin said. “Become a regular hope machine. And if you do this, not only will your contributions help raise excitement and support for science, but also help improve the lives of millions of people.”

Click here to watch a recording of the event.

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