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LaTese Briggs
Director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy.
Bioscience and Medical Research and Philanthropy
Dr. LaTese Briggs serves as the director for the Center for Strategic Philanthropy, after beginning her career with FasterCures' Philanthropy Advisory Service. 
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A Step Forward: How Genes Can Help Us Understand Mental Illness in All Populations

By: LaTese Briggs
August 02, 2017
   
   

When web developer Madayln Parker needed a mental health day, she opened up to her boss via email.

She sent a message notifying her coworkers she was taking time off to focus on her mental health, and her boss replied with a positive and heartening response that has been retweeted over 10,000 times.

Eliminating stigma is a vital first step toward identifying and treating mental illness. Similarly, the more we understand about the causes of mental illness, the better we will be able to help those who suffer with it. This is where genetics comes in.

The causes of depression and bipolar disorder are not entirely known. As best we can tell, it is the result of some combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors that contribute to, or increase one’s risk to becoming mentally ill. Given that genetic factors are the least understood part of this puzzle, we are especially pleased at the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy to be collaborators on a first-of-its kind genetic study with 23andMe and Lundbeck designed to investigate the underlying biology of major depressive and bipolar disorders. This study will combine cognitive assessments with genetic data and survey responses to assess how genes influence brain processes—such as attention, decision-making and visual perception—in individuals who live with these serious mental health conditions. 

The ultimate goal of the research is to improve the lives of people living with these conditions through better treatment options.

A Step Forward

Bipolar disorder is a chronic brain disorder that causes aberrant shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder, which causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. The National Institutes of Health estimate that more than 16 million Americans are affected by depression each year, and nearly 6 million Americans suffer from bipolar disorder.

As an African American female, those numbers are particularly striking, especially when you dive deeper into the demographics.  According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. At the same time, minorities are also less likely to receive diagnosis for their behavioral health issues and have less access to health care. 

Given this stark reality, July has been established as Minority Mental Health Month, created to improve access to mental health services for minority communities through increased awareness. I have several loved ones who are directly impacted by mental illness, and I can personally attest to their struggles to find the right doctor and to access appropriate treatments. Mental illness is particularly insidious since patients may not know that they need help, and friends and family are often reluctant to intervene on a loved one’s behalf. Yet, once care is accessed, there is great reason for hope. I have personally witnessed how effective and transformative well-managed mental health care can be. And the more we understand about the genetic underpinnings of these diseases, the better able we will be to diagnose and treat vulnerable populations. 

We are honored to partner with both 23andMe and Lundbeck, two of the world’s most creative pioneers in mental health. To wit, in August 2016, 23andMe published a landmark study with Massachusetts General Hospital, and Pfizer, detailing the scientific connection between genetics and depression. The study launching today will build on last year’s good work by combining data from genetics, cognitive tests, and online surveys in hopes of gaining a greater understanding of how genetics is related to brain functions, including attention, decision-making, and reaction time. This study is launching today and seeks to enroll 15,000 individuals with depression and 10,000 individuals with bipolar disease.

You can participate in this study if you are:

  • Between 18-50 Years Old
  • Diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder
  • Prescribed Medication to treat Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder
  • Willing to provide a saliva sample for DNA testing
  • Able to access a desktop or laptop computer (smartphones and tablets will not work with this study)
  • Willing to complete online study sessions over the course of 9 months
  • Living in the United States 

Strategic outreach to minority communities will be particularly important, and we hope that all minority groups consider being part of this study, particularly the 16.8 million African Americans in the U.S. who had a diagnosable mental illness in the last year—all of whom can help us figure out the best way to treat and manage mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders in minority communities. Combatting mental illness will reap dividends for generations to come and lead to increased productivity, better educational outcomes, lower crime rates, stronger economies and a better quality of life for all Americans. More information about the study can be found at www.23andMe.com/depression-bipolar. You can also get information about the best way to access mental health treatment here.