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No longer taboo: Americans embrace testing, treatment for mental illnesses

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The debate over rising health care costs is missing an important component — medicine can be effective only if doctors prescribe the drugs that will be most effective for each patient.

Generally, Americans see the logic of such an approach. Connecting patients to the best drug that fits their genetic makeup — a practice called pharmacogenetics — is gaining in popularity. Research found that Americans are open to taking a genetic test to help guide their treatment if diagnosed with cancer (76 percent), heart disease (75 percent), or diabetes (72 percent). Sixty-seven percent are interested in taking a genetic test to determine the best treatment plan for mental illness if recommended by a doctor — an increase of 4 percent in the answer to the same question compared with a year earlier, according to the Genomind Mental Health Poll that we conducted.

{mosads}The largest increases in support for genetic tests for mental health treatment have come from those who know someone with a mental illness, minorities, people in the West and South, and those who are in the millennial and Generation X age categories. Demographic experts will tell you these are the very populations that will fuel population growth in the United States in the coming decades, so policymakers and analysts would be wise to follow their interests regarding this topic.


Personalized medicine, of which genetic testing is a key component, remains very popular — 68 percent are excited by its development.

This genetic test interest occurs as an increasing number of Americans say they have an immediate family member, relative or friend diagnosed with mental illness (31 percent, which is up 3 percent in the past year). This increase was especially noticeable among Hispanics (a 9 percent increase) and those in the South (an 8 percent increase), compared to just a year ago.

Kristen Davis of Washington, D.C., discussed her experience with genetic testing for treatment of her mental health condition. Her doctor told her test results showed that her genes coded for some faulty mechanisms. He also told her that when she gets stressed, her already drastically low amount of serotonin plummets, causing her to become even more depressed.

Her doctor prescribed drugs that specifically targeted her unique genetic variants. Kristen reported that within a couple of weeks, she noticed improvement in her thoughts; she said her interactions with others required less effort, and her suicidal ideations began to fade.

Kristen’s account and her family’s strong backing helps us understand why there is greater interest in supporting patients dealing with mental health challenges. Our poll found that more than three out of five Americans feel not enough attention is given to mental illness, compared to other diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

A close relationship with mental illness is a driver of this view, with 71 percent of those who know someone with a mental illness feeling there is a lack of attention placed on mental illness, compared to the 58 percent who don’t know anyone with a mental illness holding this same view.

Nearly half of Americans (46 percent) say issues such as depression and anxiety should be treated with medicine prescribed by a trained clinician; millennials posted a seven-point jump over last year’s answer to this question.

In fact, 20 percent of poll respondents say they have been diagnosed with a mental illness. This corresponds with other polls that have asked this type of question.

All of these results help explain why over 60 percent of respondents think that we should spend more on mental health treatment and a majority oppose the Trump administration’s proposed budget, cutting $700 million for mental health and drug abuse research and treatment. Baby boomers and people who know someone with a mental illness are most likely to think we should spend more.

Congress clearly had all these issues in mind when it just passed an increase in funding for mental health. Mental illness once was the great taboo in society; patients would be put away if these types of conditions were suspected, and families were ashamed to discuss any history of it. The 21st century is showing us not only an attitudinal change but also an acceptance of all the tools that can help treat such afflictions. Our health care system will be better off as a result.

Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies. He was part of the polling team that helped elect President Obama and has led research projects in more than 25 countries and all 50 states (and two U.S. territories).

Tags Genetic testing Health Major depressive disorder Medicine Mental disorder Mental health Psychiatric diagnosis Psychiatry

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