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Is mental health research actually helping people who need support now? This NYT columnist says no.

It was distressing to read New York Times columnist Benedict Carey’s outgoing report the other day on what Carey perceives as the lack of progress in mental health treatment over the past two decades.

In one of his last NYT columns on the topic, Carey wrote about the big picture of mental health treatment as he’s experienced it in his 17 years of covering it and related topics.

Mental Health Letter Blocks

As someone knowledgeable about the field, the longtime journalist was often asked for advice on how to find treatment by family members, colleagues, and friends who were concerned for themselves or for someone they love. His advice and follow-up on how the process worked, or didn’t work, taught him a lot about the mental health system and how difficult it is to navigate.

But even more distressing than a difficult system, Carey writes about a staggering disconnect between the millions being spent on brain biology research and real impact and positive outcomes on the lives of people who need mental health help today.

Research projects, he says, are mostly focused on providing solutions at some point in the distant future. But over the years he’s been tracking them, they’ve failed to meet the need that exists now.

“When people are drowning,” Carey writes, “they’re less interested in the genetics of respiration than in a life preserver.”

Carey does a good job of citing specific research and some of the funding issues that have played a role in creating the situation. He quotes the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and author of a forthcoming book called, “Recovery: Healing the Crisis of Care in American Mental Health,” with this chilling statement:

“The scientific progress in our field was stunning, but while we studied the risk factors for suicide, the death rate had climbed 33 percent. While we identified the neuroanatomy of addiction, overdose deaths had increased by threefold. While we mapped the genes for schizophrenia, people with this disease were still chronically unemployed and dying 20 years early,” Dr. Thomas Insel wrote.

I don’t think Carey is saying that the past two decades of research hasn’t led to any increase in knowledge or innovations that have improved treatment, but that, as Dr. Insel’s words suggest, there is a deep division between what people need help with and the general trajectory of research focus.

It’s a frightening reality and, sadly, one that appears to be getting worse at a time when the world is recognizing that mental illness could be the next global pandemic we face. It’s also, Carey suggests, why many people resort to finding their own, often troublesome, solutions to ending their pain, including substance use and addictions.

When I think about the Southcoast, I have to wonder how much Carey’s perspective plays a role in finding mental health treatment here. As depressing as his assessment is, I have to believe that the level of collaboration in this region of the state helps balance out some of the complexity and difficulties in finding help for many.

It is, after all, why a group of 35 or more local organizations came together to create Help & Hope Southcoast last summer -- leveraging the community approach to strengthen the healing environment.

It’s not perfect, and sadly people still fall through the gaps, but using Carey’s drowning metaphor, organizations working closely together and backing each other up does get more life preservers into the water.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a closer look at some of the people and projects that are working diligently to close the treatment gaps locally.

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