Leading global experts have stated that a coordinated, diverse effort has the potential to reduce suicide, psychosis, and mental illness-related disability by 50% by 2030. However, the current level of unmet need in brain health is significant. There are many interventions that could be made today to address the gap; some of these require changes to healthcare systems or a shift in mindsets to reduce stigma. Yet one critical element to reducing the often-tragic outcomes of mental illness over the long term is to better understand the biological processes that underpin brain health. Fortunately, research efforts across scientific fields such as physics and computer science are catalyzing what is already being called “the golden age of neuroscience.” Advances in our scientific understanding of mental health as well as new ways to model and demonstrate the science will shape the way that society and individuals themselves approach mental well-being.
Aligning non-scientific stakeholders like policymakers and employers in a concerted effort to prioritize mental health will positively impact the amount and quality of biomedical research undertaken by public and private organizations and drive progress in the field. Scientific learnings are promoted and scaled in tandem with increased public awareness and stakeholder advocacy, and in turn, research has a key role to play in communicating the importance of brain health to a broader audience. For example, one major project by the National Institutes of Health, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, seeks to produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that will help reveal complex patterns of neural activity, filling major gaps in our current knowledge and providing unprecedented opportunities to explore how the brain works, how it dictates behavior, and ultimately, how to maintain brain health. It will be an invaluable tool for future brain research, but it can also shape a better understanding of what our mental health really means.
As neuroscientists put together a more complete picture of the brain, mental health challenges will become less enigmatic in the public eye. Arguably, much of the stigma around mental health can be attributed to the fact that the brain is not as well understood as other organs in the body, and it is particularly hard to interpret symptoms like behavioral issues when the underlying biological mechanisms remain a mystery. Because the ways in which mental illness drives behavior are still being discovered, issues like suicide and addiction have been left undertreated and are highly stigmatized. Fortunately, breakthroughs in biomedical research can help revolutionize both treatments and mindsets.
As our knowledge of the brain grows, mental health conditions will become more widely accepted as being caused by the biological factors that experts already understand. And like other, once stigmatized, health conditions like cancer or HIV/AIDS, awareness of mental health conditions as biological processes offers the public and people living with mental health challenges something else – hope for treatments.
Therefore, neuroscientists today are not only proving how the brain works, but also that many of the symptoms of brain disorders can be addressed, and that living successfully with these illnesses is possible when supported with the appropriate interventions. To spark the process of recovery there has to be public recognition that brain disorders may be manageable and there must be no shame and no stigma attached to seeking diagnosis and embarking on what can be a long and difficult road to mental well-being. Biomedical advances will work in tandem with other progressive efforts arising in society, such as a growing interest in maintaining a work-life balance or advocacy of methods to mitigate stress. All of these advancements are important and collectively will have a powerful impact, and medical discovery will accelerate many societal, as well as scientific, objectives.
Public recognition and understanding of brain health, and a collective desire for treatments, is more critical than ever as rates of suicide rise and issues like substance abuse of opioids plague a huge portion of the U.S. population. Along with evaluating employee benefits and launching initiatives to combat stigma, employers looking at health costs and workforce challenges should also consider how advocating for advances in neuroscience could catalyze many of the positive mental well-being outcomes they are driving toward. Ultimately, advances in biomedical research will not only improve the lives of people with mental health challenges but will help shift the way society considers diseases of the brain.