Going Global: Advancing Mental Health Research Around the World
By Leonardo Cubillos and Collene Lawhorn on behalf of the Center for Global Mental Health Research and Global Mental Health Team
• 75th Anniversary
For 75 years, NIMH has transformed the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research—bringing hope to millions of people. This Director’s Message, guest written by NIMH’s Center for Global Mental Health Research and Global Mental Health Team, is part of an anniversary series celebrating this momentous milestone.
At the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), we’re on a mission—to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through research. We live in a constantly evolving nation brimming with diversity and complexity. So, how do we tackle urgent mental health issues in such a dynamic landscape?
The answer: We take a global perspective, supporting innovative research around the world and applying the lessons learned back home. Mental illnesses are not confined by geography; our research should not be either.
NIMH’s long history of collaborating with researchers and communities around the world reflects our commitment to understanding and supporting mental health across diverse cultures and populations. In recognition of NIMH’s 75th Anniversary, we’re highlighting NIMH-supported advances that span continents, transcend boundaries, and transform lives.
Building collaborations across countries
Robust science depends on robust collaborations. For more than 50 years, NIMH has collaborated with leading organizations in public health such as the World Health Organization (WHO); these collaborations ensure that NIMH-supported research furthers mental health around the world. NIMH-funded research has provided the evidence base to advance key mental health service delivery initiatives, including the development of WHO’s Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) . This program has assisted over 100 countries in addressing treatment gaps for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders. Today, mhGAP is among the most frequently cited, researched, and used tools in the global mental health literature.
NIMH has also helped build coalitions to address major hurdles in the field. In 2010, NIMH partnered with several leading public health organizations to launch the Grand Challenges in Global Mental Health initiative. The Grand Challenges panel—including more than 400 members from 60 countries representing diverse clinical, policy, advocacy, and research communities—was charged with identifying and prioritizing the most pressing global mental health challenges. Their final report, published in Nature , highlighted six overarching goals and 40 specific challenges the field could address to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people with mental and neurological disorders.
To foster collaboration and communication across the field, NIMH has also worked to create opportunities for people to connect, convene, and share knowledge. As an example, we launched the NIMH Global Mental Health Conference, one of the first of its kind to bring researchers, practitioners, policymakers, funders, and those with lived experience together to share cutting-edge knowledge, insights, and approaches. This biannual gathering has become the principal international conference in the field, providing an interdisciplinary space for people to meet and share innovative developments, raise awareness, foster networking, and provide critical support to the next generation of global mental health researchers.
We are proud to say that just last month we hosted the 12th edition of the conference, titled “Research Without Borders,” along with cosponsors Grand Challenges Canada, Wellcome, and the International Alliance of Mental Health Research Funders. Selected sessions from the first day and the second day of the conference are now available to watch online.
Advancing impactful research with a global reach
Advances in prevention and intervention emerge directly from NIMH-supported global mental health research, improving the lives of thousands of people with mental illnesses, internationally and in the United States.
Findings from the SMART Africa Scale-Up Hub offer a prime example. Researchers in Uganda adapted and tested a school-based intervention called “Amaka Amasanyufu,” or “Happy Families.” The project , led by Fred Ssewamala, Ph.D., and Mary McKay, Ph.D., both of the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and Kimberly Hoagwood, Ph.D., of the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, tested a group intervention designed to help families address disruptive behavior disorders in children ages 8 to 13 years. The researchers then partnered with local faith and community leaders to scale the intervention and bring it to even more people. The intervention now reaches over 40,000 students across six districts in the Greater Masaka Region bordering Lake Victoria.
In another example, mental health service providers in the United States are now implementing lessons learned from research in other countries facing similar challenges. The state of New York is adopting community-based interventions that were developed and tested in Mozambique as part of an NIMH-supported study that aimed to integrate transdiagnostic mental health assessment and treatment into services delivered by community health workers. The study, part of the PRIDE SSA Scale-Up Hub led by Milton Wainberg, M.D., of Columbia University, and Maria Oquendo, M.D., Ph.D., of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, takes advantage of digital technologies to provide sustainable, scalable mental health care.
Prioritizing science to maximize impact
As we celebrate advances in global mental health over the last 75 years, we also recognize the opportunity to have an even bigger impact moving forward. To boost the impact of NIMH-funded work, we’re focusing on supporting research that digs into the complexities of delivering effective mental health care in the real world.
For example, NIMH is supporting research projects focused on reducing suicide risk and promoting resilience across the lifespan , improving the long-term management of mental health conditions , intervening on the social determinants of mental health , integrating mental health care in primary care , and developing and implementing metrics to improve the quality of health care delivery . In all these efforts, research starts with trying to understand existing health care practices in order to enhance the health care system’s uptake of evidence-based interventions.
This research approach is multidisciplinary by necessity—it requires engaging researchers, practitioners, and key partners across many domains, including the social sciences. It also demands that we support efforts to study and harness the potential of new and emerging technologies.
Investing in the future
Our deep commitment to advancing global mental health is reflected in the NIMH Strategic Plan for Research, which highlights global mental health as a priority that cuts across all of the institute’s activities.
Today, NIMH is home to the Center for Global Mental Health Research and an institute-wide Global Mental Health Team. The center and team work closely to understand the scientific challenges that hinder mental health research in a global context and enhance NIMH’s response in critical domains, including efforts to build research capacity. Supporting local investigators is critical to increasing research quality and closing the global mental health treatment gap.
As we look to the future, we’re hopeful that the research we support will have a broad reach and a deep impact, helping to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people around the world.