We spoke to Eva Woelbert, the architect of MQ’s ‘UK Mental Health Research Funding 2014-2017’ report, about some of her key findings - and how we can use this analysis to champion mental health research.
Hi Eva! So, in a nutshell, what is the report?
Well, it presents an analysis of how much money we spend on mental health research in the UK, and analyses where this money goes in terms of different mental health conditions, but also in terms of types of research. It's a really important resource to understand what areas aren't being funded and where we can invest more.
Why do you think it’s so important to measure mental health research funding in this way?
This report is the only analysis in the UK that gathers data from across the sector, from many different funders. A lot of organisations know where their own money is going, but without seeing the big picture it’s impossible to know if the money is going where it’s most needed.
For you, what are some of the key points this report highlights?
There's a fair bit in there! For me, the fact that so little money comes from public donations is a key insight - there's a real need for more public support for mental health research. Charities fulfil an important and unique role in health research funding and that's making sure we focus on real and tangible patient benefit.
The fact that there's been no increase in investment in mental health research over the last ten years highlights just how neglected it’s been. There are also some gaps in the ‘production line’ of research, which affects our ability to translate new insights into tools and products that actually help people affected by mental illness. For example, the report shows how little is invested in prevention, diagnosis and development of treatments.
Which findings were the most unexpected?
It did surprise me how little money goes into treatment development and prevention - it seems really counter-intuitive. I'd love to speak to a few of the main funders and ask them why they think that is and how we can change it.
I was also surprised that conditions like ADHD receive so little funding per person affected, as I've observed that it's a condition that seems to get a lot of attention. And although I was aware that cancer research gets a lot of charitable funding, I was still surprised that it makes up a phenomenal two thirds of the overall funding – this is thanks to many individual gifts, and collectively they’ve had huge impacts on cancer prevention and treatment. Public support for mental health research is only just taking off and I look forward to seeing it grow.
The million-dollar question - why do you think mental health research is underfunded? Why are we in this mess?
I think it's because a lot of mental health suffering is in silence, and not visible. Stigma is being tackled, but not enough to make a real difference yet. In that sense, MQ is perhaps a bit ahead of the game – we need to show people that research is part of the solution.
There has been a perception that scientific progress is slow in this area, but this has changed and - thanks to methodological advances in neuroscience and progress in harnessing the power of large datasets - mental health research is now one of the areas where funders expect great advances to be made. Mental illness is complex, but we now have the tools to tease apart this complexity.
What do you hope people remember from this report, to help us change the landscape?
For me, it's that we can gather so many insights from looking at the data - there's much more we can draw out from the data to build a picture that we didn't know before. Data is key for coordination across the sector, and this report is a real opportunity.
But this report isn't just for the science community. Charities are a means for everyone to get involved with championing mental health research, to make sure research is relevant to the people it will ultimately impact. The public have a huge role to play in helping to increase funding and inform priorities for research.
Moving forward, what needs to happen next?
Following on from this work, I would like to see a well-maintained, ongoing database of mental health research funding, as well as capacity to analyse this data and present robust insights on mental health research funding as and when it's needed.
I think we're working to make that happen in the UK, but that's not enough. Mental health research should be a global endeavour - like research in other illnesses such as Alzheimer's. I think we can achieve real strategic coordination, but we need more than just goodwill - we need financial investment.
Click here to read the full UK Mental Health Research Funding 2014-2017 report, or the methodology paper in The Lancet Psychiatry.
Last updated: 27 February 2019