RESEARCH WEEKLY: NIMH Largely Ignores Public Comments to 2020-2025 Strategic Plan   

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has a recent history of ignoring the most severe mental illnesses. The release of its final 2020-2025 strategic plan last month is confirmation that the federal agency plans to continue disregarding the needs of people suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  

The NIMH is the main federal government agency for research into mental illness. The NIMH was authorized through the passage of the National Mental Health Act in 1946 to better help individuals with mental health disorders through better diagnosis and treatments. With a budget of almost $2 billion in 2020, the NIMH conducts research and funds outside investigators to better understand mental illness and develop new treatments to reduce the burden these disorders have on individuals.  

In December 2019, the NIMH released a draft of its five-year strategic plan for public comment. The Treatment Advocacy Center submitted our own  public comment , identifying concrete examples of research initiatives the NIMH could be pursuing today to help people with serious mental illness recover and live better lives. We also asked you to submit your own comments and  share your story  of how the decisions of NIMH affect you and your loved ones.  

Despite receiving more than 6,000 responses over the winter holidays, NIMH made no substantive changes to the research goals or objectives in the final version released to the public last month. In fact, NIMH incorporated only 0.6% (39 of 6,233) of the public comments into the final version, according to NIMH Director Dr. Joshua Gordon  

The majority of the comments the NIMH received were from members of the public (37%) or special interest groups (16%), such as the Treatment Advocacy Center, according to Director Gordon.  

Comparing the December 2019 draft to the public version released last month, the actual changes to the document made are barely detectible. For example:  

  • Page 16: Added “other social determinants of health” to environmental influences  
  • Page 37: Added "involving paraprofessionals and peer providers" to workforce-related issues 
  • Page 38: Change from "disparate population" to "marginalized population" when discussing serious mental illness and those disproportionately impacted 
  • Page 38: Added "language and cultural barriers" to underserved populations 
Clearly, the NIMH had no intention of listening to the public’s criticisms of its five-year strategic plan. The NIMH research goals for 2020–2025 further worsen the existing imbalance in NIMH research. Those goals offer little hope for new or better treatments for individuals who are currently afflicted with a mental illness during their lifetime, especially a serious mental illness. Such a failure of leadership is inexcusable given the large increase in research funding given to NIMH in recent years.  

The Treatment Advocacy Center and many of its supporters submitted  testimony  to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on NIMH appropriations for FY2021 two weeks ago. In our testimony, we wrote, “future NIMH funding must be used to correct the existing imbalance, not worsen it, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the mental health treatment system and will likely result in an exacerbation of symptoms in people currently affected and an increase in serious mental illnesses among Americans. Those with the most severe forms of mental illness deserve to be prioritized.”  

Let’s hope that Congress will listen. 

Elizabeth Sinclair Hancq
Director of Research
Treatment Advocacy Center

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Research Weekly is a summary published as a public service of the Treatment Advocacy Center and does not necessarily reflect the findings or positions of the organization or its staff. Full access to research summarized may require a fee or paid subscription to the publications.  

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