Author: Kristina Lenn
On October 10th of this year, #WorldMentalHealthDay was a trending topic on social media as users posted their experiences with mental illnesses and their support for those who also suffer. “Live, Don’t Leave” was included in posts, trying to encourage those who are suicidal to seek help for a more hopeful future. Seeing this level of support as people band together across the world to break the stigma about mental health is heartening. However, it also intimates at the enormity of the situation and the lack of progress that the medical field is experiencing, partly because the specific causes are not well understood.
“Mental health” can be a misleading term, as the associated illnesses can be caused by physiological factors, such as impediments in the brain’s function along with external stressors. Hormones, chemicals that transmit information in the blood, can impact other chemicals that carry information in the brain, called neurotransmitters. Together, these sets of chemicals initiate our body to perform certain tasks like muscle movement and mood regulation. Fluctuations in serotonin and dopamine (“feel-good” hormones), norepinephrine (a stress hormone), and glutamate (a regulator for nerve function) can lead to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. What makes these illnesses so difficult to treat is that they can also be caused by genetics or family history.
Treatment for these disorders has made slow progress, and the possible decrease in research funding could make the problem worse. The proposed federal government budget for the 2020 fiscal year plans to decrease funding to the National Institute of Mental Health by more than 90%. This group is a federal research agency part of the National Institutes of Health that works to better understand mental illnesses and design appropriate treatments, but the proposal plans to cut their funding by more than $200 million, a decrease of over 90%. Such a drastic decrease could pose a setback to finding better treatment options and possible cures for these debilitating disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which is also facing a cut by 10%), 46% of suicides were committed by people with known mental health disorders.
Within our own academic community, mental health is a major concern among graduate students where the population of those suffering from anxiety and depression is six times that of the general public. While many schools offer support via Counseling and Psychological Services, university mental health clinics are typically overwhelmed and unable to provide help to students in a timely manner. Cuts in funding will only make this situation worse.
While this sounds like a depressing situation, and rightfully so, it also serves to remind us just how important our words are, not only in offering support to those who are suffering but also in calling those in power to action. Behind each number is a person who is struggling to keep moving forward each day, sometimes for reasons they don’t yet know or understand. Part of our job as science writers is to remind the public of their own humanity and educate by presenting the facts; these things form the battering ram that will break the stigma against mental illnesses and affect the healthcare change we need.
This is the second post in our monthly Editor’s Corner series, where our Editor-in-Chief, Kristina Lenn, shares current topics in science and communication.