Filling the gap in mental health research

Ways to tackle the lack of funding in mental health research.

There are ways to tackle the lack of funding in mental health research. In the image, illustration of light at the end of the tunnel

One in four people in the UK is affected by a mental illness at some point each year, equivalent to almost 15 million people[1]
. Governments, policymakers and the general public are starting to take notice. There has been a radical shift in awareness over the past few years, stigma is being tackled and attitudes are changing.

However, major treatment gaps remain. Three-quarters of people with a mental illness are still untreated[2]
. Services are hard to access, waiting lists are long and even the most effective treatments do not work for many people. And this is contributing to poor health outcomes. People with severe mental illness have a much lower life expectancy than the general population, by as much as 20 years[3]
. There have been no major pharmacological advances since the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were developed in the 1990s.

Worryingly, perhaps the starkest gap of all is in the one area that can help to change this in the long term: research.

Just 5.8% of the health research budget is spent on mental health research[4]
. A new six-year analysis carried out by MQ, a mental health research charity, found that an average of £115m is spent on research each year. This may sound substantial, but it equates to just £9.75 spent per person affected by mental illness[5]
. For cancer research this figure is almost 150 times more, at £1,571 spent per patient. When looking at specific mental health conditions, the figures are even more stark, with depression — the most common mental health condition — receiving £1.55 and eating disorders as little as £0.15 per adult affected[5]

There is a fundamental issue underlying these figures — the lack of charitable funding in the mental health sector. And this is why MQ was set up. In the UK, for every £1 spent by the government on mental health research, the general public donates just 0.3p, less than half a penny. Compare that with the equivalent charitable donation for cancer: £2.75[5]

Working alongside the government, charities play a vital role in driving research funding and advances in care. In areas such as cancer and heart disease, sustained streams of charitable funding have been instrumental in delivering treatment advances, supporting prevention and, ultimately, transforming lives.

There is another missing piece of this picture: pharma. MQ’s analysis did not include pharmaceutical funding because it is not available at a UK level. But what we do know is that progress in drug development in the area of mental health has slowed, pharmaceutical companies are pulling out and potential advances seem to be slipping further away. This is largely due to perceived intractability as a result of numerous late stage failures, a lack of biomarkers and competition with other therapeutic areas such as Alzheimer’s disease and oncology.

Lack of overall progress in mental health research affects the potential for development. We need to understand exactly what is being spent. As we update our analysis, we would love to work with pharmaceutical companies to include the cost of their internal research efforts but also the science they fund at universities and contract research organisations.

When we know what we are spending and how, we can get a handle on the gaps. And when we know what these are, we can make a case for tackling them.

If all research funders can work together, and we can bring the general public with us, we have a real opportunity to transform the current picture of mental health research funding and drive advances that could improve the lives of millions of people. 


[1] Mcmanus S, Meltzer H, Brugha T et al. Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007 results of a household survey. London.

[2] Ormel J, Petukhova M, Chatterji S et al. Disability and treatment of specific mental and physical disorders across the world. Br J Psychiatry 2008;192:368–375. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.107.039107

[3] Wahlbeck K, Westman J, Nordentoft M et al. Outcomes of Nordic mental health systems: life expectancy of patients with mental disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry 2011;199:453–458. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085100

[4] UK Clinical Research Collaboration. UK health research analysis 2014. London; 2015.

[5] MQ. UK mental health research funding. MQ landscape analysis. London; 2015.

Last updated
Clinical Pharmacist, CP, November 2015, Vol 7, No 10;7(10):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2015.20200022