The new mental health task force is not the only way Penn approaches mental health issues.
Hundreds of studies relating to mental health are always underway at Penn, explained Perelman School of Medicine professor Trevor Hadley , former director of Penn’s Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research. “Psychiatry here is enormous,” he said.
Research ranges from “cutting edge” basic biological studies to service design, Hadley outlined. He estimated that 35 studies are currently ongoing at the Center alone, describing it as “a kind of think tank” for mental health organizations.
Examining life expectancy
Hadley’s own team hopes to discover why the average life expectancy of someone suffering from a mental illness is 25 years shorter than that of a non-sufferer, he explained.
The team recently surveyed Philadelphia’s mental health services and found that the facilities were well-run, showing that they were not the cause of the estimated shorter lifespan.
Hadley believes that raising awareness of resources could increase this life expectancy. He explained that his team’s next step is to design “micro-intervention” - small-scale programs to increase awareness of the available primary care services among people who have mental illness and don’t seek help.
Alternatives to antidepressants
Jay Amsterdam , director of the Depression Research Unit, said a “really scary” issue that his department studies and addresses is the problem of resistance to antidepressant treatments.
He said studies “almost invariably” show that the longer a person is exposed to antidepressants , the less impact the drugs have. The department is currently researching alternative therapies, such as botanical medicines, that will provide a second option in case antidepressants become ineffective.
After conducting the first ever double-blind study - a study where neither participants nor researchers know the condition into which they have been placed - on the properties of chamomile a few years ago, Amsterdam and his team found that the plant has very potent anti-anxiety effects . These were “monumental findings,” he said , which the team are currently exploring further.
Other anxiety-reducing drugs
Ketamine is another new alternative treatment for sufferers of long-standing depression, Penn research might indicate. The Center for Mood and Anxiety Research is currently examining the capabilities of the drug to reduce anxiety, Project Manager Marna Barrett said.
The team is beginning a study in which patients are given a dose of six ketamine nasal sprays over three weeks, Barrett explained. The dosage should be enough to see an effect, but it is not significant enough to cause addiction, she added.
Computers can also be used to treat mental illnesses, Barrett said, outlining the department’s examination of a “unique” web- based program called Good Days Ahead.
The program targets how negative thinking begins, Barrett said. It sets tasks teaching patients to recognize how they react negatively to situations. It then teaches them how to replace negative thoughts with a positive approach, Barrett explained.
Good Days Ahead differs from other computer therapy programs, as a patient also receives 50 percent of their treatment from a therapist, Barrett outlined. If the study is successful, the technology will still be able to drastically reduce the time a patient needs to spend with a therapist.
The study has been running for several years and has followed about 90 people so far. Barrett expects the program to conclude in September.
Peer-provided mental health services
The School of Social Policy & Practice also examines forms of mental health treatment.
SP2 professor Phyllis Solomon and doctoral student Ryan Petros are currently seeking funding for a project they hope to launch in the summer to find the “magic” behind peer-provided mental health services.
Peer-provided services are mental health support given by someone with a mental health illness. For example, this can take the form of self help groups.
In particular, Solomon and Petros want to explore whether there is an “inherent quality” of being a peer with mental illness which enables the delivery of a higher quality of mental health treatment and, if so, how this should be supported.
Solomon explained how this research is part of a recent shift in approach to mental health.
In the past, people considered symptom reduction to be the best that could be done, she said, outlining the development of a new “recovery orientation.” In the modern day, it is understood that people suffering from mental health issues can learn how to manage them - “it doesn’t define them,” she said.