Understanding the Science of Mental Illness

Inside the research arm of the VTCC

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Advances made by researchers in the field of mental health have broadened our understanding of what takes place in the brain from a neurobiological perspective. With these developments, the stigma associated with mental health is declining as people begin to understand that mental health should be considered the same way society views physical illness.

For 50 years, the Virginia Treatment Center for Children at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU has provided inpatient and outpatient mental health services for children and families of the Central Virginia region.

The research arm of the center is known as the VCU Commonwealth Institute for Child and Family Studies. VCU faculty experts there are involved with evidence-based training and research initiatives to further improve the mental health of children, adolescents and families. It is housed within the VCU Department of Psychiatry’s Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  

According to Bela Sood, M.D., medical director of the center, mental illness is still considered taboo – in large part, because it is a problem that is not obvious to the naked eye. Much of it is behavioral in nature and belongs to a spectrum of behaviors that can go from normalcy to a point where they cause a disability. The disability is then observed to occur in very specific arenas, such as at school or within the home, and it is not obvious to observers until they begin to delve into it, said Sood.

“In recent years, scientific knowledge has demonstrated that behavior stems from the way people are wired, and not what they will upon themselves,” she said.

Mental health research at VCU
Some of the current research at the center includes a clinical trial examining the efficacy and safety of a drug agent known as varenicline for smoking cessation in teen smokers; a survey on tobacco use among teens who receive mental health care; and an outcome study utilizing brief digital measures that are reported to doctors in real-time. Plans are underway to test treatments that target teens struggling with both mental disorders and substance abuse disorders, as well as innovative uses of text-messaging to support and encourage youth in their mental health care.

“The center is an excellent site for research. With Dr. Sood’s leadership, the clinicians who treat children are very interested in testing cutting-edge mental health screening, assessment and treatments,” said Michael Mason, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and director of the VCU Commonwealth Institute for Child and Family Studies.

“Here we can test evidence-based practices and we are revealing findings for patients and families that can truly impact their treatment and care,” he said.

Earlier this year, a VCU team of researchers, led by Mason, launched a $2.9 million National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study to examine how a teenager’s network of friends, favorite hangouts and feelings and moods all interact to influence substance use.

The research is an important example of translational research – the findings could potentially help teens in the Richmond community and beyond with preventative interventions for substance use. The study of substance use is a key focus of VCU’s Clinical and Translational Science Award, which VCU received in 2010 from the National Institutes of Health.

Mason and the team will collect data based on survey, real-time location and ecological momentary assessment – which is a method of repeatedly sampling a subject’s behavior and experience in real-time – during a two-year period in a sample of 300 urban adolescents. The VCU team has developed a highly contextually specific research approach that grounds social networks within the physical and social environment of adolescents’ lives.

“By studying adolescents’ social networks within the context of their routine locations or activity space for two years, we will be able to model the evolution of risk and protective mechanisms for substance use and mental disorders in great detail,” said Mason.

“This detailed information will provide highly specific, culturally relevant and informative data for future preventive interventions,” he said.

Mason and colleagues will use ecological momentary assessment via mobile messaging technology to simultaneously assess situational contingencies including behaviors, emotions, evaluations, peers and locations on adolescent substance use in real time. By combining sampled-specific coordinate data of location with a series of standard surveys, the team will integrate the personal, social and environmental processes associated with initiation and escalation of substance use.