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Senate Highlights Need for Mental Health Research Amid Funding Concerns

January 25, 2013—The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) Jan. 24 held a hearing to discuss America’s mental health system. Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) called mental illness “the nation’s silent epidemic,” and pledged to take a closer look at funding opportunities to improve mental health awareness and treatment in his role as chair of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) Appropriations Subcommittee.

The first panel of witnesses featured testimony from National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Director Thomas Insel, M.D., and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Administrator Pamela Hyde, J.D..  A second panel featured various mental health experts.

Both Dr. Insel and Ms. Hyde explained that half of mental illnesses begin before age 14 and three-quarters before the age of 24, raising the need for research around mental health and the importance of prevention and early intervention.

Given that mental illnesses are treatable, Senator Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) asked Dr. Insel what actions can “close the gap between research and real-world practice to ensure that evidence-based treatments are available” in communities.  Dr. Insel said many National Institutes of Health (NIH) efforts, particularly the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS), engage with communities to ensure the questions being asked by science address the community’s needs.

Switching gears to funding concerns, Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) asked what the consequences of sequestration [see Washington Highlights, Jan. 4, 2013] will be on research conducted at NIMH. Dr. Insel said there would be certain studies the institute would like to pursue, but would not be able to conduct given the budget, including one “highly relevant” study related to the biomarkers of mental illness.

Building on Sen. Mikulski’s question, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked Dr. Insel to paint a picture of what can be done with mental health research and what current funding levels are doing to research. Dr. Insel compared the understanding of mental illness to the understanding of cancer several years ago, saying, we are on the “cusp of a revolution,” adding that mental health research holds potential for many big breakthroughs. He also pointed out that the institute can only fund about one in five grant applications, limiting funding available for “spectacular” science.

Pressing further, Sen. Warren asked Dr. Insel to discuss the financial impact of successful research, to which Dr. Insel said it comes down to one question, “[D]o you want to invest early or do you want to pay later?”  He continued, “[U]nfortunately, I think we have tended to decide that we’ll pay later, often at a very large premium, instead of making the early investments in Alzheimer’s, autism, schizophrenia, to make sure we come up with better solutions.”


Alexandra Khalife
Legislative Analyst
Telephone: 202-828-0418


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