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Serious Mental Illnesses Fall Through Cracks at Federal Research Agency, New Report Finds

Nov. 19, 2003

Serious Mental Illnesses Fall Through Cracks at Federal Research Agency, New Report Finds


National Institute of Mental Health Fails to Adequately Fund Research Into Serious Mental Illnesses, Despite Severe Economic, Societal Costs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) continues to underfund scientific research into serious mental illnesses, in spite of the illnesses’ enormous economic and societal costs, according to a report released today by the Treatment Advocacy Center and Public Citizen. NIMH has allocated funds to research irrelevant to its core mission, leaving serious mental illnesses grossly underfunded compared to other diseases.

From 1997 to 2002, the period covered by the report, the NIMH budget doubled from $661 million to $1.3 billion. However, the proportion of money spent on research of serious mental illnesses – defined as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, and severe forms of depression, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder – fell by 11 percent, to only 28.5 percent of its budget.

It is estimated that 11.6 million adults in the United States have serious mental illnesses, imposing significant economic and social costs. At any given time, there are approximately 250,000 people homeless or incarcerated who suffer from a serious mental illness. Individuals with a serious mental illness account for 58 percent of total direct costs for all mental illnesses, an amount that includes $40 billion spent under federal programs such as Medicare. However, only 5.8 percent of the NIMH budget funds “clinically relevant” studies – those that are reasonably likely to improve the treatment and quality of life for individuals presently affected.

“By not funding research on serious mental illnesses, NIMH isn’t simply hurting scientists, it’s blocking research that could improve the lives of millions of the most vulnerable Americans,” said E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., report lead author and president of the Treatment Advocacy Center’s board. “NIMH’s refusal to do an adequate amount of research on serious mental illnesses is a federal disgrace and a personal tragedy for individuals affected with these diseases.”

NIMH has rejected many valid research proposals and funded others that appear to have no relationship to serious mental illnesses. For example:

  • NIMH rejected funding for a trial to improve the treatment of schizophrenia but funded a study to ascertain how people in Papua New Guinea “think about their own relationships in the real world”;
  • NIMH rejected funding for a study of bipolar disorder in children but funded a study of self-esteem in college students.
  • NIMH rejected funding for a study to improve the treatment of major depression but funded a study of “sources of friendship” in elementary school students;
  • NIMH rejected funding for a study of the causes of postpartum depression but funded a study of the hearing mechanism of crickets;
  • NIMH rejected funding for a study of medication noncompliance in individuals with serious mental illnesses but funded a study of social communication among electric fish;
  • NIMH rejected funding for research on means of supporting patients being released from psychiatric hospitals but funded a study of preschool children’s understanding of love;
  • NIMH rejected funding for research on measuring lithium in the brain but funded a study of how people in Czechoslovakia cope with social change.

In each of the preceding examples, the projects that were rejected would have cost approximately the same amount as those proposed.

Research projects that the Institute chose to fund may be necessary and valid, the report’s authors said, but they should not come at the expense of NIMH’s commitment to studying serious mental illnesses. Many other federal institutions, ranging from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Cancer Institute to the U.S. Department of Transportation should be funding research currently paid for by NIMH.

“The enormous increase in NIMH’s budget could have been used to advance research and improve the lives of millions of people who have serious mental illnesses or whose family and friends do,” said Sidney Wolfe, M.D., report co-author and director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “NIMH’s failure to ‘stick to its knitting’ is unacceptable.”

Added Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, “It is nothing less than a national tragedy to misallocate public research dollars that should be used to offer hope of better treatment and possibly a cure for severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”

The report’s authors urged Congress to hold hearings and mandate the percentage of the NIMH budget that is devoted to research on serious mental illnesses. They also called for better coordination among the various parts of the National Institutes of Health and the NSF so that research is funded by the appropriate institutes and NIMH strengthens its focus on serious psychiatric disorders.

This report is the third in a series of reports monitoring NIMH’s research. To view the report on the Web, click here.