Health treatments are most effective when scientists and clinicians have a clear understanding of how they work. This isn’t the case for mental health, where many treatments are no more advanced than they were 30 years ago. We believe a radical new approach is needed to drive science forward and improve people’s lives.

Why it's important

Wellcome has long been a supporter of research into mental health. The work we’ve funded has led to NICE recommendations on the use of psychological therapies in the UK, including establishing the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, and research into whether mindfulness training in schools can prevent the onset of mental health problems.

But some underlying problems need to be addressed before the field can make significant progress.

Mental health research is fragmented with problems described and measured in different ways. There’s little understanding of why treatments are only effective for some of the people who receive them, or how they really work.

What we want to achieve

We want to help shape a new super-discipline of mental health science in which scientists and clinicians work with a common purpose, using standardised measures and approaches.

We're committing £200 million in funding to this priority area, and we’ll look particularly at:

  • treatments for anxiety and depression, as over 615 million people worldwide have these conditions
  • psychological treatments, because we think there’s a real opportunity to innovate to make these treatments more successful, and to gain new understanding of how they work 
  • early life and early illness, because most common mental conditions start between the ages of 15 and 24, and the longer someone has a condition the harder it is to provide effective help.

Funding through the priority area is in addition to the funding we already offer for research across all areas of neuroscience and mental health. Applications for our existing schemes won’t change, and your research won’t stand a greater or lesser chance of being funded if it includes a focus on depression and anxiety, young people or psychological therapies.   

What's at stake

  • One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year.
  • 75% of people with a mental health problem develop it before the age of 24.
  • Mental health problems are predicted to be the main cause of global mortality and morbidity by 2030.
  • Only one in five people receives appropriate treatment for depression and anxiety in high-income countries, and one in 27 in low- and middle-income countries.

The areas we're focusing on

A super-discipline of mental health science

Researchers working in mental health, including psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, neuroscientists and data scientists, often work in silos. 

Different disciplines use different measurement scales, there are inconsistent approaches to diagnosis and treatment, and there’s a lack of shared data.

Compare this to cancer, where it doesn’t matter whether you’re a cell biologist or a clinical oncologist – you’re working with a common purpose to cure cancer.

We want to bring the same sense of common purpose to mental health, with different disciplines working together to collaborate in a new super-discipline of mental health science.

For this to become a reality, we want to help develop:

  • standards for how depression and anxiety are assessed, achieved by creating an agreed set of common measures, to enable consistency and comparison between different groups
  • a new global database to host mental health data, including data generated using the common measures, to enable researchers to carry out large-scale analytics 

Mental health science will generate robust scientific evidence about what works and why, allowing treatments to be tailored to the people who need them. 

To build greater awareness of and support for mental health science, we’ll work closely with people who have lived experience of mental health problems, policymakers, academic researchers, charities and the private sector. 

Improving treatments for depression and anxiety

Depression and anxiety affect over half a billion people worldwide. Although there are effective treatments, many people don’t respond to them.

Clinicians often have to use trial and error to work out the best treatment, without being able to explain why one person’s treatment is different to another’s. 

In an era of personalised medicine, this failure to understand some of the underlying mechanisms means mental health is falling behind other fields.

To transform how depression and anxiety are treated, we want to: 

  • find new ways to ’back translate’ successful psychological therapies, so that the biological and neurophysiological mechanisms underpinning them are better understood
  • encourage artificial intelligence experts and researchers to collaborate and use the data collected in our global database to address key challenges: for example, to differentiate between different types of depression.

We want to apply this work to help develop new, more personalised treatments for depression and anxiety, and improve existing ones.

Reports

Protecting mental health: acting early against anxiety and depression [PDF 141KB]

We brought together a range of experts to define the research and support that’s needed to be able to detect anxiety and depression earlier.

Contact us

We’re currently setting up a strategic advisory committee, and we'll be advertising for roles in the team over the coming year.

If you have any questions or comments, email mentalhealth@wellcome.ac.uk.

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