What the National Institute of Mental Health Does

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is charged to help Americans better understand and treat mental illnesses in the US. The organization relies on basic and clinical research to pave the way from prevention, recovery and cure mental illness.

The NIMH mission is crucial to helping Americans achieve better mental health and develop innovative processes that ensure “a full array of novel scientific perspectives that are used to further discovery in the evolving science of brain, behavior and experience.”

In this capacity, NIMH seeks to perform the research and perform the training to achieve the following four objectives:

• Chart the trajectories of mental illness in order to determine when, where and how to intervene.

• Strive to encourage prevention and develop cures.

• Strengthen the public health impact of NIMH-supported research.

• Use NIMH divisions and programs to underscore translational research that spans the bench to bedside to practice.

This is a challenging program designed to promote public health and identify areas where mental health threatens the American way of life. A program known as the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) grew from the 2008 NIMH Strategic Plan and is recognized as a dynamic cross-cutting initiative by the Institute.

Whereas current symptom-based diagnostic systems for mental illnesses are more limited, RDoC integrates multiple levels of information from the patient’s genomics to social factors to provide much more accurate characterizations. RDoC researchers encourage scientists to identify molecular or neural “of specific domains of mental function, rather than creating models of diseases.”

The information from RDoC is being compiled in a database known as RDoCdb which will allow researchers to share and mine results of all NIMH research. In terms of mental health, this is a monumental initiative that could be used to better understand human behavior.

Understanding the scope of mental illness and appropriate treatment is the core mission of NIMH. Most of the useful research in achieving the goal is derived from epidemiology, or “the study and analysis of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. Epidemiology is the cornerstone of public health, and shapes policy decisions and evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare.”

What is Prevalence

Statistics put forth by NIMH are based upon prevalence, treatment and costs of mental disorders in the US. Prevalence refers to the proportion of the population that has or has had a specific characteristic in a defined period of time. In public health, this usually refers to an illness or a condition or a risk factor like depression.

Prevalence can only be estimated when researchers have information on samples of the larger population or of the entire population, which are rare.

In order to establish prevalence, researchers randomly select a smaller group that represents the larger population. In these smaller groups, prevalence is determined by the number of people in the smaller group who have the characteristic being researched divided by the number of people in the group. Prevalence is thus expressed as a percentage.

Point prevalence is a means to report the proportion of the population that presents the characteristic at a specific point in time. Period prevalence refers to that proportion of the population that has the characteristic at any point during a defined period of time, such as the “past 12 months.”

Prevalence should not be confused with incidence, which is a measure of new cases of a characteristic or illness that arise in a population over a defined period of time.

However, when studying prevalence estimates surveys, we must remember that the survey methodology is critical to interpreting information. Without understanding the methodology used to develop the study, the public could easily misread the results.

NIMH presents much research and detailed studies about a number of mental illnesses through its website here.