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NIMH Turns Challenges into Opportunities

Research Highlight

Recently, researchers, clinicians, mental health advocates, and others from more than 90 countries gathered virtually at the 25th National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Conference on Mental Health Services Research (MHSR).  

The two-day August event, “Transforming Challenges into New Opportunities,” covered topics including enhancing mental health equity, addressing young adults with first-episode psychosis, digital decision support systems to identify suicidal behavior, successful implementation of trauma-focused interventions, and strengthening a diverse mental health workforce. This MHSR Conference attracted the largest audience to date with over 1,800 registrants.

NIMH Director Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., opened the event, noting that despite progress in mental health care, many challenges remain, especially regarding mental health equity.

MHSR Keynote Speakers Focused on Addressing Mental Health Equity

Two nationally known leaders served as keynote speakers at the MHSR Conference. Leana Wen, M.D., M.Sc. , George Washington University health policy and management professor, delivered the first keynote address. Her presentation, “Addressing Mental Health and Health Equity,” covered what researchers have learned over the last two years about mental health during COVID-19 and what they can do moving forward. Dr. Wen stated that the pandemic unmasked health inequities such as the ability to socially distance and vaccine access that previously received little attention. She added that researchers and policymakers should be mindful of potential inequities when creating health guidelines. 

While record rates of depression and anxiety during the pandemic helped highlight the importance of mental health, Dr. Wen explained that more needs to be done regarding stigma, resources, and insurance parity. Ultimately, people should view mental health as the same as physical health.

Dr. Wen added that effective policy comes from listening to the people you’re trying to help, meeting them where they are, and homing in on legislative priorities. She concluded her talk by addressing the need to strengthen public health infrastructure and social services safety nets and to include mental health as a core strategy in policy making.

The second keynote speaker was Ruth Shim, M.D. , M.P.H., professor in cultural psychiatry and associate dean of Diverse and Inclusive Education at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, who delivered her presentation titled: “Achieving Equity in Mental Health Services Research.”

Dr. Shim underscored that structural racism is not based on episodes of random discrimination; it is often embedded within systems “in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various and often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequality.”

Dr. Shim presented research showing how social, environmental, and economic conditions create risk factors for mental illness and negatively affect mental health outcomes. These conditions are influenced by social norms, shaped by policy choices, and responsible for health inequities seen among populations. She ended by stating that aiming for equality alone won’t solve the problem and added that solutions involve challenging social norms and advocating for equitable mental health policies.

Two Plenaries Focused on Future Directions and HHS Research Priorities

In the first plenary, “Forecasting the Future of Mental Health Research,” presenters discussed a range of strategies to improve the delivery of mental health services, including how technology could enhance care, the benefit of integrating data and communications, the need to align research, funding, and policy and new approaches to address the emerging mental health crisis impacting children and adolescents.

The second plenary, “Mental Health Services Research Priorities Across Health and Human Services,” featured HHS agency directors and leaders from:

  • The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
  • The National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
  • The Health Resources and Services Administration
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

These leaders highlighted their agency priorities, including enhancing research efforts, refining policies, improving access and outcomes, tackling substance abuse, and improving the safety and quality of mental health care, including the recent implementation of the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Line. In addition, each speaker identified several funding opportunities for researchers.

Scientific Symposia Presented New Research Findings

Eighteen symposia were presented, and each symposium highlighted several researchers who addressed their recent research findings on several topics:

  • Increasing access to evidence-based mental health treatment by leveraging technology.
  • Examining the impact of the sudden shift to telemedicine on mental health treatment.
  • Navigating the shifting landscape of mental health treatment.
  • Bridging the gap between effectiveness trials and implementation science.
  • Supporting innovations in mental health policy and implementation science.

Additional symposia topics are listed in the MHSR Agenda .

Video recordings of the presentations will be available on NIMH’s YouTube  page.