Soon after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my mum and I attended a conference organised by the Manic Depression Fellowship (as it was then known – it’s now Bipolar UK). We were both still reeling from the shock that I had fallen ill with a severe mental illness, which had been baffling and frightening for the whole family. My mum and I listened to all the psychiatric and other experts pontificating in some dingy lecture theatre in London. It confirmed what we already knew: bipolar disorder was an incurable disease that I would have to manage and cope with all my life. It’s a bum rap.
"Until there is a public outcry about mental health research, the issue won’t get the profile it deserves."
But I was young, only 19. Surely, we hoped, medical science would find a revolutionary cure in the decades to come? It was a just a matter of time, we comforted ourselves. Those brilliant scientists, toiling away in their laboratories, unraveling the mysteries of the brain and mind. They would find, one day, the miracle treatment that would enable me to live a normal life, wouldn’t they?
Here I am now, 27 years on. Sadly, there’ve been no miracle breakthroughs. I have, however, tried nearly every drug under the sun for bipolar disorder and social anxiety disorder (an extra diagnosis I’ve picked up along the way). It’s been my life’s work to find the drug that will control my relentless rapid cycling – the virtually never-ending cycle of a week of frantic activity, followed by a week of misery and depression. This pattern repeats itself, like Groundhog Day, again and again – and again. I live like the proverbial hamster on a wheel.
In my quest to stop the mood cycling, I’ve probably experimented with 20 to 30 different medications, settling eventually on what I think is the best combination. As well as a relatively modern novel anti-psychotic, I also take Lithium, discovered soon after the Second World War in 1948, and a monoamine oxidase inhibiting antidepressant, which was licensed in 1961. Both these drugs, the best available for me, were invented more than sixty years ago.
Generational wait for a breakthrough
So, where are all those miracle, pharmaceutical inventions that were going to rid me of these terrible diseases which afflict me? Well, they haven’t happened. And it’s not just bipolar disorder – there have not been any major treatment breakthroughs for any major mental illness in decades.
Why not? Because we spend a pittance on mental health research. The government allocated £420m to spend on potholes in the 2018 budget - more than three times the £124m it spends annually on research.
The mental health research charity MQ published on 26 February its UK Mental Health Research Funding’ report, which sets out the latest data on exactly how much money has been invested in mental health research. It shows that chronic underfunding has led to mental health receiving 25 times less funding, per person affected, than physical conditions, such as cancer. This equates to £9 spent on research per person affected by mental illness – while £228 is spent on research per person affected by cancer. And, even though awareness of mental health has increased, money being ploughed into research has flatlined over the last 10 years.
What to me is even more terrifying is that with only five percent of this tiny budget is being spent on the development of actual new treatments that could help patients. Almost half of the funding goes towards “underpinning research and aetiology”, research into the structure and function of the brain and factors contributing to the development of mental health conditions. All very interesting, but it won’t alleviate any suffering in the here and now.
- See also: Knowledge is power in mental health education
- See also: Personal budgets for mental health issues: a blessing or a burden?
I was bitterly disappointed to see the media didn’t gave this important report a decent showing. Sadly, until there is a public outcry about mental health research, the issue won’t get the profile it deserves. Government has finally invested in mental health services only because of a groundswell of public and political pressure. It won’t invest in research until its feet are held to the fire.
So far, this scandal hasn’t registered with the public at large, despite the ground-breaking best efforts of MQ. Nor, does the public seem to recognise it must play a part in helping find breakthrough treatments for mental illness. Donations from the public account for just 2.7% of mental health research funding - in cancer, spending by fundraising charities makes up 68% of funding.
Donations for mental health research have to be made a priority in the mind of the public in the same way the fundraising giant Cancer Research UK – worth £621m – has made helping finding a cure for cancer the most compelling ask for donations today. I think the only way this is likely to happen is if all mental health charities – especially the leading brand in the sector, Mind – make fundraising for scientific research and for new treatments, a priority call to action. The charities do back these calls for more research, but I think much more could be done.