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Funding to bring researchers together to improve understanding and treatments for depression and anxiety

Wellcome is committing an additional £200 million to mental health research, Wellcome’s Director announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Mental health has a high profile at Davos this year with the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William and Prime Minster of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern speaking at a public session on mental health.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said: “Mental health affects everyone, either directly or through our relatives and close friends. There has been great progress in improving awareness over the last few decades but too many people are still left behind. We know too little about the underlying causes, how treatments work, why they work for some and not others, and how to make them more effective.

“Science is essential to answering these questions, which is why Wellcome is committing £200 million over the next five years. To take on this huge challenge, we need broad expertise, with researchers from different backgrounds and experiences, and different countries, alongside governments, businesses and wider society.

“Mental health is not just a pressing public health problem, it’s also a huge productivity and economic issue. Far less is spent on mental health research than on physical health. More investment is essential to develop and improve treatments, get these to the people who need them and reduce the stigma that tragically surrounds mental health issues. There is a great opportunity to innovate and transform our mental health, in everything from basic research and early prevention, to frontline treatment and workplace initiatives.”

Wellcome’s new five-year programme will focus on improving basic understanding of depression and anxiety to improve treatments – supporting research into what works and why, and how best to tailor treatments to the individuals who need them. It will concentrate on psychological therapies that can be delivered early in life and early in the onset of illness, as mental health problems typically start at a young age.

Over 615 million people suffer from anxiety and depression worldwide. Depression and anxiety often go untreated, especially in low-income countries, and treatments are only effective for around half of people. Clinicians often have to use trial and error to work out the best treatment, without being able to explain why one person’s treatment is different to another’s.

Mental health research is fragmented, with researchers often working in silos, and mental health problems described and measured in different ways. Wellcome aims to bring together different groups of researchers – including psychiatrists, neurologists and, public health specialists, neuroscientists, data scientists and cell biologists – to share knowledge and collaborate. The goal is to create a culture like that of cancer research, where seamless collaboration across basic and social science, clinical medicine and public health have helped to drive new approaches to treatment and prevention and much better health outcomes.

To transform how depression and anxiety are treated, Wellcome aims to:

find new ways to ‘back translate’ successful psychological therapies, so that the biological and neurophysiological mechanisms underpinning them are better understood

develop common standards for how depression and anxiety are assessed, to enable consistency and comparison between different groups

Create a new global database to host mental health data, to enable researchers to carry out large-scale analytics and encourage them to collaborate on key challenges: for example, to differentiate between different types of depression.

Wellcome is one of the world’s biggest funders of mental health research, providing over £300 million in funding over the last ten years. Alongside the additional £200 million, Wellcome will continue to fund neuroscience and mental health research through its usual science funding schemes.