Psychiatric Epidemiology

The Psychiatric Epidemiology unit is an intellectual community of faculty and students who share a commitment to investigating the causes and consequences of psychiatric disorders. We use this knowledge to develop effective population-wide and clinical interventions. We aspire to use our findings to improve living conditions for people with mental disorders, which are affected not only by the symptoms of their disorders, but by the profound effects of stigma and social exclusion.

The unit embraces a population-based perspective that takes a "cells to society" (or “eco-epidemiology”) approach to investigate how factors at many levels may dynamically influence psychiatric disorders over the lifecourse.  Students benefit from working with faculty who are leading scholars in a wide range of areas, including stress and adversity, neurodevelopmental science and developmental psychopathology, stigma, genetic epidemiology, global mental health, and mental health services research. These opportunities are enhanced by our long collaborative history with other Departments of Columbia University, especially the Department of Psychiatry.  Within the Department, our close alignment with the NeuroEpidemiology Unit is especially valuable and is recognized in a series of joint seminars sponsored by both units.  Similarly, we are closely aligned with the Substance Abuse Unit of the Department, and with the Environmental Epidemiology Unit.  Trainees have the opportunity to work with faculty across all these areas as well as across Departments within the Mailman School of Public Health. 

Training Opportunities

The Psychiatric Epidemiology Training program (PET) and its weekly seminars provide a focal point for intellectual exchange.  PET has had ongoing funding from NIMH for about 50 years. We teach a course in Psychiatric Epidemiology as well as courses in related topics such as global mental health, diagnosis, and biological psychiatry. 

Trainees in psychiatric epidemiology are likely to interact with those who are in training programs in closely related areas.  These include Neuroepidemiology, Substance Use Epidemiology, and Life course environmental epidemiology.  They are also likely to interact with trainees in multiple training programs in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, some of which are focused more on neuroscience but also encompass epidemiology. 

Selected Projects

Developmental Psychopathology and Child Psychiatric Epidemiology

Our research encompasses population based national surveys, birth cohort studies, national registry based studies, and multigenerational high risk samples.  Some of these are based in the United States and others in Northern Europe or elsewhere.  They include projects focused primarily on prenatal origins of mental disorders, for example those based in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort (~115,000 births) and in data collected on the entire population of Finland.  Others focus on early deviations in development that lead to mental disorders, violence, suicide, and other high risk behaviors in youth. Gene-environment interplay is of central interest to these investigations. The child psychiatric epidemiology research group has been actively engaged in international randomized controlled trials focused on youth suicide and school dropout.

Global Mental Health

The Global Mental Health Program (a joint effort with Psychiatry and other departments) played a central role in the development of the ICD-11 nosology together with the World Health Organization.  International projects in Latin America, China, and Africa address mental illness in different contexts and using different methodologies. For example, working with a regional network for mental health research, projects in Latin America are investigating community-based interventions and service programs. A project in South Africa is investigating the genetics of schizophrenia in a sub-Saharan population.  We should note that global mental health is a broad term that could also encompass projects described elsewhere.

Military Deployment and Psychiatric Disorder

Several projects focus on factors across the lifecourse that intersect with military experience to influence the mental health of soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This work builds on long-standing Department expertise in research on with military populations starting with the Vietnam War.

The Impact of Psychiatric Disorders on Physical Health

An emerging area of collaboration with faculty in the Chronic Disease unit is focused on the impact of adversity and mental disorders on physical health across the life span. This collaboration is particularly focused on identifying the biological mechanisms through which mental disorders increase risk for chronic physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

First Episode Psychoses

Many projects have investigated variation in the (treated) incidence and course of psychotic disorders, across as well as within countries.  Others involve evaluation of treatments, as in a current collaboration with OnTrackNewYork, a multicomponent early intervention for First Episode Psychoses, which is now being adapted for testing and implementation in Latin America.

Multigenerational Studies

These are exemplified by a study following the offspring and grandchildren of families at high or low risk for major depression, with risk defined as a parent with moderate/severe depression in the first generation.  One of the major goals is a search for biomarkers as clinical and biological data are collected across generations.


Unit Faculty