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Amplifying Voices and Building Bridges: NIMH Symposium Calls for Action Towards an Inclusive Path Forward

Institute Update75th Anniversary

It is estimated that one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. These conditions can range in severity and lead to disability. “But hidden within those statistics are the striking disparities that exist in the prevalence, course, and burden of mental illnesses,” said Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Gordon’s remarks opened the “75th Anniversary: Amplifying Voices and Building Bridges: Toward a More Inclusive Future” symposium, which was held at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and videocast online on March 18, 2024. Part of a year-long celebration featuring a trio of themed symposiums and other events, this symposium focused on inclusion in research, disparities in health and access to care, and diversity in the mental health workforce.

“As an institute, we have much to be proud of, but we also need to reflect on our failures, particularly those related to racism and discrimination,” said Dr. Gordon. “Understanding the past and present will enable us to continue deconstructing systemic racism within biomedical research and pave the way for a brighter future.”

The symposium brought together researchers, those living with mental illness, clinicians, and communities to reflect on opportunities to engage people in mental health research in meaningful and equitable ways. The symposium opened with remarks from NIH Director Monica Bertagnolli, M.D., and Gordon, followed by a keynote by Ruth Shim, M.D., M.P.H. , the Luke Grace Kim Professor in Cultural Psychiatry and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

In her talk, Dr. Shim detailed the complicated and checkered history of mental health care and research in the United States, from the conditions of the early institutions to structural forces that harm people within Black and other minority communities. She also discussed systemic issues, concepts of oppression, and the importance of a shift from focusing solely on equality to prioritizing equity and justice, using community-based approaches that center on the expertise of oppressed and minoritized communities and individuals with lived experiences of mental illness.

“Maya Angelou said, ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’ That's our hope when thinking about NIMH in the future: We have the courage not to repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Dr. Shim.

The keynote was followed by several panels, including:

These talks focus on navigating and eliminating barriers to inclusion and advancement in mental health research and treatment. The speakers advocated for cultivating diversity and empowering early career researchers. They also discussed the importance of centering marginalized individuals' participation, experiences, and values through community engagement, amplifying voices, and leveraging lived experience to address disparities and achieve equity in mental health care delivery.

Altha Stewart, M.D. , Senior Associate Dean for Community Health Engagement, Director of Public and Community Psychiatry, and Director of the Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, delivered the closing keynote address. Weaving stories from her experience as a Black psychiatrist, Dr. Stewart discussed historical context, the power of pivotal moments for change, and addressing future research and funding for health equity.

“We've made some tremendous progress. There are things that have happened in the last decade that many of us would never have imagined,” said Dr. Stewart, while acknowledging there is still much work to do.

“It was an incredibly insightful day, and we’re so grateful to all the speakers for sharing their time and experiences with us,” said Shelli Avenevoli, Ph.D., NIMH Deputy Director, in her closing comments. “This symposium served as a commemoration and a call to action for all of us to create a more inclusive future.”

The recordings from this symposium are available on the NIMH website and its YouTube channel . To learn more about NIMH’s 75th Anniversary, visit