At the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, CA many new research projects were presented, data was discussed on the advances in science during the previous year and the conference in general showcased so many new ideas and directions for the field. In particular there was renewed focus on the problem of mental health. There has always been some sort of stigma attached to mental health issues. There are still people, some of them health care professionals, who believe that mental health is a matter of willpower and emotional strength rather than a physical problem. This is not the case and the sfN 2016 had many presentations and talks concerning the growing numbers of mental health patients and what it could mean on a global level.
Shekhar Saxena, director of the World Health Organization’s department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse had much to say on the topic. In an interview with Science News about the conference he talked about the need for collaboration between neuroscientists and mental health professionals and stated, “When it comes to mental health, all countries are developing countries. The collaboration seems to be improving, but much more is needed and not only in a few countries, but all countries.” While the developed world has many advantages over third world countries in terms of medicines and modern equipment, it seems that worldwide, mental health care is often not readily available.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group also addressed the problem in a two-day meeting this past spring, launching their “Out of The Shadows” initiative. The economic concerns regarding mental health are also significant. Saxena stated that based on a study of global mortality conducted by the WHO, the direct and indirect costs of mental disorders exceed $2.5 trillion yearly and are projected to reach $6 trillion by 2030. Globally, there are over 800,000 suicides every year. That number is more than breast cancer deaths and malaria deaths as well.
Availability of care is certainly part of the problem. Speaking to Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio on the crisis in April 2016, Saxena talked about the disparities in available care between some countries. Their conversation speaks for itself on the gap between rich and poor nations and the availability of care:
INSKEEP: How big is the gap between rich and poor countries when it comes to treatment options for people who have a mental health issue?
SAXENA: There is a large gap. There are countries which are in high-income range where there is a psychiatrist for every 2,000 people. And there are other countries - in Africa, Asia, also in Latin America - where there is one mental health worker for 1 million or more population.
INSKEEP: I'm just going to stop you on that number. You're telling me that there are countries who have 1,000 times more mental health professionals than other countries on a per capita basis.
SAXENA: That's correct. There are some countries where there is a population of 19 million and just three psychiatrists.
At sfN2016, there was a great deal of research presented that looked at the possible causes for some mental illnesses and a focus on the biology of the brain was at the forefront. In particular the synapses of the brain, intersections of neurons that carry messages throughout the brain. Many neuroscientists believe that the axons and dendrites that form synapses are key players in some mental disorders but much more research is needed. One theory is that dendritic spines are sometimes damaged and that effects the transmission of dopamine, a substance that is involved in mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Drugs currently available only treat the symptoms, not the root cause and this is where new study should be focused. The video below explains more, check it out