The mission of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is to diminish the burden of mental illness through research. This public health mandate demands that we harness powerful scientific tools to achieve better understanding, treatment and, eventually, prevention of mental illness.

Through research in basic neuroscience, behavioral science, and genetics, we can gain an understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying thought, emotion, and behavior — and an understanding of what goes wrong in the brain in mental illness. In itself this information will give us profound insights into ourselves as a species, but we must, at the same time, hasten the translation of this basic knowledge into clinical research that will lead to better treatments that ultimately must be effective in our complex world with its diverse populations and evolving health care systems.

The stakes for our Nation are high. According to the landmark Global Burden of Disease study, commissioned by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, mental disorders represent four of the ten leading causes of disability for persons age 5 and older. Among “developed” nations, including the United States, major depression is the leading cause of disability. Also near the top of these rankings are manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mental disorders also are tragic contributors to mortality, with suicide perennially representing one of the leading preventable causes of death in the United States and worldwide.

Grim as they are, such statistics do not capture fully the costs of mental illness. Mental disorders often strike early in life, during childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Because mental disorders may have severe symptoms, and often run a chronic or recurrent course, they are profoundly destructive, not only to life and productivity, but to the well being of families, causing immeasurable suffering to affected individuals and their loved ones.

Fortunately, research has given us effective treatments for many mental disorders. An array of safe and potent medications and psychosocial interventions, typically used in combination, permit us to treat schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, major depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses. We recognize, however, that our successes to date are far from complete. As is true of treatments for most serious chronic illnesses that afflict humanity, current treatments for mental disorders control symptoms but do not cure the disorder. Even with state-of-the-science treatments, residual symptoms and recurrent episodes of illness are the rule. Many treatments, moreover, have unacceptably serious side effects.

Especially urgent needs exist in the critical area of childhood mental disorders. At present, we lack the full knowledge we need to make diagnoses with certainty, and we lack treatments that have been validated for the particular needs of children and adolescents. Yet, clearly, the often unrecognized and untreated symptoms of mental illness have a profound, long-term impact on the child’s developing brain and his or her family, social, and academic interactions. Gaining the information needed to recognize promptly and accurately, treat safely and effectively, and, when possible, prevent long-term mental disorders is critical for children and their families and for the future of our Nation.

As you review our Science on Our Minds 2001 series, I hope that you will glimpse some of the richness of our research efforts and gain a sense of how we set our research priorities. The tragedy of mental illness demands that as a society we respond to it effectively, ethically, compassionately, and together.

We thank you for your interest in the scientific activities of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Steven E. Hyman, M.D.

For More Information

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
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All material in this fact sheet is in the public domain and may be copied or reproduced without permission from the Institute. Citation of the source is appreciated.

NIH Publication No. 01-4583


Murray CJL, Lopez AD, eds. The global burden of disease and injury series, volume 1: a comprehensive assessment of mortality and disability from diseases, injuries, and risk factors in 1990 and projected to 2020. Cambridge, MA: Published by the Harvard School of Public Health on behalf of the World Health Organization and the World Bank, Harvard University Press, 1996.