Reasons for hope

Solutions for the mental health crisis emerge through innovative research, diagnostics and treatments

Featured Media for Reasons for hope

It’s the spring of hope for mental health, astir with novel discoveries, life-changing therapies and more openness than ever before — yet, for many, it feels like the winter of despair. The pandemic years, that crucible of stress, isolation and uncertainty, fueled and exposed mental health problems. In 2022, nearly 1 in 4 American adults (about 59 million people) said they experienced a mental illness in the previous year, but only half of those afflicted reported receiving any mental health treatment.

Among children and adolescents, the prevalence of mental illness, which had been steadily creeping upward, jumped during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In 2019, 15.7% of American adolescents aged 12-17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode in the past year. In 2022, that number was 19.5%. That same year, 13.4% of adolescents — just over 1 in 8 — seriously thought about killing themselves.   

And even as the pandemic has stoked demand for mental health care, it also has worn down the mental health workforce, already short-handed, with early retirements and widespread burnout. Access to affordable, effective interventions remains a daunting barrier. People face long waiting lists and lack of insurance coverage. Many treatable conditions remain undiagnosed because people lack a way to obtain assessments. 

Yet, below this perfect storm of mental health crisis, there is a strong undercurrent of hope that begins in the lab. Research is leading the way toward treatments that are more effective, more personalized and more accessible.

“The manner in which we know the brain now, compared with what we knew in previous decades, is incredibly different,” said Victor Carrión, MD, the John A. Turner, MD, Endowed Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and vice chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Laura Roberts, Katharine Dexter McCormick and Stanley McCormick Memorial Professor, leads
the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Direct impact on patients

New imaging technologies allow researchers to see the neural circuitry that goes awry in neuropsychiatric disorders, lab-grown clumps of brain tissue — known as organoids — can simulate the impact of genetics in autism, and artificial intelligence can surmise signals that predict the onset of depression and anxiety.

Moreover, these discoveries, rather than moving slowly through specialist silos, can now rapidly inform new treatments. “Collaboration is vital for translation, and our departmental awards and programs promote and emphasize synergy between research and clinical practice,” said Laura Roberts, MD, the Katharine Dexter McCormick and Stanley McCormick Memorial Professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

“Our bench scientists doing tremendous research also work alongside our clinicians to make sure that new knowledge translates to the clinical setting and has a direct impact on patient care,” she said.

Researchers developing transcranial magnetic stimulation, for example, work with clinicians who treat patients with severe depression to design clinical trials, and their techniques are informed by teams inventing new ways to measure the flow of brain signals and those building virtual reality models of the brain.

A clearer understanding of the biology of mental health disorders not only leads to breakthrough treatments — but just as powerfully, helps dissipate stigma.

“There’s been a large shift in stigma in the past 25 years,” said Heather Gotham, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who leads the coordination of a nationwide network of centers dedicated to implementing evidence-based mental health care.

The Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, offers training in preventing school violence, substance use in the workplace, adolescent depression and more, and it offers support for mental health providers seeing refugees and asylum seekers.

“Collaboration is vital for translation, and our departmental awards and programs promote and emphasize synergy between research and clinical practice.”

Laura Roberts, the Katharine Dexter McCormick and Stanley McCormick Memorial Professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences

“One thing that’s made a difference is the greater understanding that mental health disorders and substance use disorders are chronic, relapsing disorders of the body, just like diabetes and heart disease,” Gotham said.

With this new awareness, more people want to be mental health literate. In the past few years, Gotham has seen a surge of interest, from a broader community, in the network’s online courses — from teachers, for example, who want to be more responsive to the needs of students and reduce stigma in the classroom.

Less stigma also means more money for research and mental health services. Funding for mental health has become a rare bipartisan issue. In 2022, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which has provided $245 million to fund mental health services like training for school personnel, first responders and law enforcement and expanding the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline.

Stanford Medicine researchers know that to make the most impact with their discoveries they must reach those who need help the most — through online symptom screenings, virtual therapy, group therapy, inclusive clinical trials and community interventions.

They are training mental health professionals locally and globally in new evidence-based techniques. Providers in more than 38 countries, for example, have been trained in cue-centered therapy, a 15-week treatment program developed at Stanford Medicine to help children and teens recover from chronic trauma. Recently, pro bono training in cue-centered therapy was provided to clinicians in Ukraine.

What gives Roberts hope is that a more open conversation on mental health is drawing together experts from different fields with a shared purpose. “It used to be that clinicians would stay in their clinical practice and refer to journals for new research, and researchers would stay in the lab and never see a patient — and we don’t have that now,” she said. “I see more openness and more flexibility from the current generation of researchers and clinicians.”

Read on in this issue of Stanford Medicine to learn about some of the ways Stanford Medicine researchers and clinicians are advancing the understanding of mental health and sharing that knowledge.

Author headshot

Nina Bai

Nina Bai is a science writer in the Stanford Medicine Office of Communications.

Email the author