Everyone is affected by mental illness in some capacity, either directly or through those that we know. Around a quarter of the population experience a mental health condition each year and this high prevalence has considerable repercussions, both socially and economically. Indeed, many would be surprised to hear that on top of obvious human suffering, mental illness is estimated to cost the UK an eye-watering £105 billion a year once healthcare expenses and lost productivity have been taken into account.
With mental illness disrupting the lives of so many and harming the economy to such an extent, I was genuinely surprised to hear of the funding gap that exists in mental health research. Compared to other diseases that place a similar burden on society, publicly funded research into mental health is disproportionately low. Cancer research provides some of the strongest evidence of this effect, receiving around 20% of total UK research expenditure, almost four times more than the amount invested in mental health research (5.5%). To put that into perspective, over £1500 is spent researching cancer for every patient with the disease compared to £9 for every person suffering from a mental illness - the numbers simply don't add up.
There are a number of possible reasons for this lack of investment. Mental illnesses are remarkably complicated, encompassing a wide range of conditions that are generally very difficult to understand. This complexity means that the most productive studies tend to be interdisciplinary in nature, covering an unusually broad range of subjects, including psychology, psychiatry, neurobiology and social science. The bleak financial landscape is also likely to contribute to some extent, with the perceived lack of funding making mental health research an unattractive field for individuals embarking on careers in research.
Whilst the above suggestions are speculative in nature, one obvious fundamental issue is the absence of an established funding charity dedicated solely to mental health research. Many fantastic mental health charities exist, which influence policy, address public attitudes and provide vital support to people living with mental illnesses. However, such organisations rarely finance research and as a result, charitable funding in the mental health sector is virtually non-existent.
In 2013, MQ, a new public fundraising charity, was formed with the intention of filling this void. Launched with the backing of a £20 million start up pledge from the Wellcome Trust, the charity is in prime position to have a profound effect on the future of mental health research.
MQ is an organisation in its infancy and it will be some time before its successes can be gauged. Academic research is a frustratingly slow process and only when studies financed by MQ have been published and disseminated amongst the scientific community, will we be able to judge the impact of the charity. In the meantime, the major challenges faced by the organisation will be in raising awareness of its novel campaign and sourcing the donations required for it to continue supporting research.
We all stand to benefit from improvements in mental health research and the poor funding infrastructure that currently exists means that sensible investment could genuinely transform the way that we diagnose, treat and prevent mental illness. With MQ soon to embark on its first major fundraising campaign, it is vital that as many people as possible are aware of the charity and the potential impact the organisation can have if it successfully establishes itself as a major funding body. I for one will be following its progress with a keen eye and if public donations can match the scale of the problem, the future of mental health research could be very bright indeed.
This post originally appeared on Sam's blog Snackable Science.