Laboratory funding shouldn't distract from vital mental health services


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Research doesn't mean relief for the millions of Americans suffering from mental illness.

Scientific discovery, though valuable, translates only roughly into enhanced services, which are more important than ever in our rough economic times. While increased funding for research on stigmatized and poorly understood conditions is laudable, we mustn't conflate it with adequate assistance for those in need. It's not enough to support research; the conversation should also emphasize services that are grounded in science and tackle the effects of mental illness in the community.

"Knowing something in the laboratory, even writing about it in journals and presenting that research at professional meetings, doesn't necessarily translate into practice," said Michael Flaum, the director of the Iowa Consortium on Mental Health and a University of Iowa clinical psychiatry professor. Flaum sees the consortium's main goal as facilitating that translation to improve Iowans' access to quality mental-health services.

All things considered, the UI's funding for research is in a fairly secure position. Even in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the last fiscal year saw a 9 percent growth in external funding for faculty research. And UI graduate Roger L. Koch, in an admirable move, donated $1 million to a fund for interdisciplinary research into bipolar disorder with the aim of determining treatment and prediction of the illness — a boon for anyone who struggles with the difficult condition.

Americans need funding for services as well, though. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 45.1 million American adults experienced mental illness in 2009. While this is not a sharp increase from the 2008 number, it still highlights the importance of effective treatment, surveillance, and assistance. In addition, only 37.9 percent of people with a mental illness (60.6 percent of those with a severe mental illness) received any form of treatment.

On the state level, the National Alliance on Mental Illness gave Iowa's mental-health resources a "D" grade in 2009. Iowa Legislature candidates have criticized the state for providing unpredictable funding for mental-health and disability services. And the Iowa State Association of Counties lists improved mental-health funding first on its human-services agenda, protesting the $8 million reduction in mental-health funding from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011.

"In times of tight funding climates, which we're now very much in, the first thing that gets cut is any kind of education, training, and supervision dollar [for mental-health issues]," Flaum said. "There has been increased utilization of mental- and behavioral-health services over the last few years… but there has not been a proportional increase in providers and funding."

Here in Johnson County, the Board of Supervisors' strategic mental-health/disability services plan for the coming years contains a distressing analysis. While the plan states that the services in 2009 were adequate, "significant county population growth in the past eight and one-half years, the state's lack of appropriate funding for growth … and lack of hospital beds are causing severe stress to the Johnson County mental-health/disability budget."

To make matters worse, federal stimulus money expires in the middle of this financial year, leaving mental-health funding in a tenuous position right when dire economic straits have increased their demand. Difficult economic times increase the need for mental-health assistance, Flaum said, because they tend to trigger latent predispositions for mental illness.

This is reflected in the aforementioned Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data — in 2009, unemployed persons experienced suicidal ideation at nearly twice the rate of those with full-time employment. Economic downturns damage more than just pocketbooks.

So while funding advances in mental illness treatments are commendable, we also need to improve services for those already suffering. It is difficult to argue in times of budgetary crisis for increased funding, but we must facilitate the movement of knowledge from the laboratory to the hospital.

Scientific advancement should not overwhelm the use of new information.

Otherwise, while it may help those in 2025, today's research will not help today's sick.

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