Message from the Director
It is an exciting time to be at the helm of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the lead federal agency charged with setting and supporting the national agenda for mental health research. Scientific advances are rapidly transforming neuroscience and mental health care. Just in the last five years, we have made considerable progress. In basic science, the genetic revolution has begun to pay off for mental health research—after facing some challenges, we have now identified hundreds of places in the genome irrefutably linked to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism, and depression. Thanks to the NIH Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, we have new tools and resources that allow unprecedented insight into the exquisite complexities of the living brain. In translational sciences, we celebrated the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of two of the first truly novel antidepressants in decades—esketamine for treatment-resistant depression, and brexanolone for postpartum depression. And in intervention research, NIMH-sponsored studies proving the effectiveness of coordinated specialty care for first episode psychosis led to nationwide implementation of this evidence-based care model through state-supported mental health clinics.
The future is bright. Looking forward, we've enacted the new NIMH Strategic Plan for Research, aiming to build on these advances. Over the next few years, we look forward to further implementation of suicide prevention efforts based on recent NIMH findings. These findings include studies demonstrating the benefit of universal screening for suicidality in emergency departments, and new computational approaches to predict suicide risk using electronic health records and other digital tools. NIMH is also investing in practice-based research that examines mental health care delivery in real-world settings. For example, NIMH is pioneering the Early Psychosis Intervention Network (EPINET), a research network that will use data from community-based first episode psychosis clinics to enhance the delivery, evaluation, and continual improvement of evidence-based care. These continuous advances drive the enthusiastic and energetic efforts of the research workforce devoted to our mission. And, more importantly, they offer hope and solutions to individuals with mental illnesses, as well as their families and communities.
Since the advent of this plan in 2020, we have faced significant challenges. During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, rates of self-reported symptoms of distress—including depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal ideation—have dramatically increased. And underserved and minority communities are disproportionately bearing the burden, both in terms of the direct effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection and the widespread mental health consequences. For example, several studies suggest that suicide rates for Black Americans may have increased, while suicide rates for white Americans have largely remained steady or decreased. In communities of color, systemic racism and its pernicious effects, starkly evidenced by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, continue to compound these challenges.
NIMH has relied on its strategic plan to adapt to these challenges. We have collaborated with other Institutes, Centers, and Offices across NIH to fund over 50 supplements aimed at studying the impacts of COVID-19 in minority and vulnerable communities, through the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Health Impacts of COVID-19 in Vulnerable and Health Disparity Populations Initiative. We have also funded a number of studies focused on developing, testing, and implementing evidence-based approaches to mitigating these impacts. All of these efforts are in line with our strategic priorities related to traumatic stress and mental health disparities.
The NIMH Strategic Plan for Research maps out our path. From basic research aimed at understanding how the brain produces behavior, to translational efforts to uncover novel treatment targets, to clinical studies testing novel approaches in community practice setting, we’ve charted numerous routes linking these challenges and opportunities. Each has the potential to deliver significant advances in mental health care. NIMH’s broad portfolio aims to ensure that our research will have public health impacts across a range of timeframes—from the near-term to the far-off future. At NIMH, we’re proud of how far we’ve come, humbled by the distance yet to be traveled, and empowered by the hope that drives us forward.
Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institute of Mental Health