Mental Health & Neurological Disorders

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Why It Matters  |  What We Are Doing  |  Who Is Involved


Why It Matters

About 450 million people suffer from mental disorders such as anxiety, depression or schizophrenia.  Traditional health surveillance has grossly underestimated the burden of mental and neurological disorders such as dementia, autism, and Parkinson’s disease, according to the World Health Organization. Mental and neurological disorders account for an estimated 11 per cent of the global disease burden, and these numbers will grow as the population ages. Traumatic events such as natural and man-made disasters, wars, and migration also increase post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. North Carolina, the U.S. and countries around the world face acute shortages of mental health treatments and crisis centers. In many places, people with mental illnesses and cognitive disorders also face stigma, greater interactions with criminal justice systems, and human rights abuses.

What We Are Doing

Finding ways to improve systems and services for people with serious mental illness, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities are of deep concern to faculty across the Gillings School.  Read More

Services for the severely mentally ill, including community-based outpatient and crisis services and psychiatric hospitals, are in short supply in North Carolina and around the world, resulting in facilities that are often overbooked and understaffed. As a result, people with the most severe symptoms do not always receive the most effective treatment, and a growing number of people with mental illness are detained in jails or find themselves homeless. Our researchers are using systems approaches to find more effective interventions to improve mental health care systems.  They are also tackling the problem of substance abuse among those with severe and persistent mental illness through a model curriculum to promote wellness and motivate people to quit tobacco use and other addictive substances as they rehabilitate.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the only one in the top ten for which there is no means to stop or slow its progress. Rates are growing around the world as the global population ages. The burden is borne both by those with the disease and also those who care for them.  Our researchers are working among minority communities such as African Americans and American Indians in North Carolina to empower communities to care for adults and older people with dementia and their caregivers.  Through a partnership with Cambridge University, our work has now spread to the U.K., where the community based participation methods designed by our faculty are being adapted in rural and isolated areas of England. Dementia is also a growing problem in China.  One of our doctoral students from China is examining how diet, particularly fish consumption, affects the development of dementia in older Chinese people, in order to recommend effective lifestyle changes in childhood and adulthood.  Other researchers are looking at the role that risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes and lifestyle choices in middle age play in the development of dementia in later life. Our researchers hope that the findings will help identify at-risk individuals who may benefit from early interventions that target modifiable risk factors.

Autism is a developmental disorder that begins in early childhood and affects children around the world. An estimated 67 million people are affected.  Autism disorder does not discriminate based on culture, geography, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. Our faculty are measuring the extent of this under-reported disorder so that intervention can begin at an earlier age, when treatment is most effective. Two other areas of active research involve assessing public/private health insurance packages for individuals with autism and engaging stakeholders in identifying future priorities for autism research.

Depression is one of the leading causes of disability-adjusted life years worldwide .  Among people infected with HIV, depression affects 20-30% and is a barrier to accessing HIV care, remaining adherent to HIV treatment, and maintaining long-term health.  While depression is widely recognized as a major concern for those living with HIV, worldwide more than 75% of those needing mental health care are going untreated due to lack of specialized personnel, stigma around receiving mental health services, and other concerns.  Our faculty are measuring the potential benefit of expanding access to effective depression treatment for HIV patients and developing innovative models of care to integrate evidence-based depression treatment into HIV clinical care.

Who Is Involved

Our leaders in mental health and neurological disorders come from across the Gilling School, and include our world-class faculty, staff, post-docs and students. This overview only captures a fraction of the important research, teaching, and public service efforts in mental health and neurological disorders at the Gillings School. Please explore the individual leader descriptions to learn more about their work.