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SPIRIT Initiative Takes Aim at the U.S. Mental Health Crisis

March 28, 2024

The state of mental health in the United States is not good. The last 15 years have seen unprecedented increases in depression and anxiety, especially among young people. Rates of fatal suicide are also on the rise, particularly among older adults. A new Columbia Mailman School initiative called SPIRIT (Social Psychiatry: Innovation in Research, Implementation, and Training) aims to catalyze public health research collaborations to better understand the mental health crisis and identify solutions.

Headshot of Katherine Keyes

Katherine Keyes, SPIRIT’s director

“It is not an overstatement or alarmist to say we’re in a mental health crisis, and this crisis is not something we can treat out way out of. We really need to refocus on root causes, including social determinants of health,” says Katherine Keyes, professor of epidemiology, who directs SPIRIT. “What we need to do as a school of public health and university is design research, implementation, and solutions to these growing problems.”

Already, SPIRIT has more than 50 participating faculty bringing extensive expertise in mental health research, both from within Columbia Mailman and from the larger Columbia Irving Medical Center and other departments across campus. Research teams will look to uncover the factors giving rise to mental illness, such as the emotional stress of climate change, social media and other new technologies, as well as what is driving poor outcomes in populations like Black and LGBT+ communities. Other efforts will examine how brain development, stress response, plus how loneliness and lack of connection each play a role. Researchers will also examine possible solutions. These include school- and community-based prevention programs, economic and social policy, crisis support, and stigma reduction. SPIRIT offers pilot funding and mentoring.

SPIRIT comes from a long tradition of mental health research at Columbia Mailman dating back to the early 1970s and the establishment of the Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program, which is currently led by Keyes. The emphasis is social psychiatry, covering the political, interpersonal, and cultural dimensions of psychiatric disorders, distress, and mental well-being. In 2022, the School launched GMH@Mailman (Global and Population Mental Health) as a hub for research on the social determinants of mental health and developing and implementing interventions.

Over the last year, Keyes and colleagues have published research on rising rates of depression and anxiety, psychological distress, and suicidal behaviors, especially among girls; groups at elevated risk for suicide attempts from bullying victimization; and rising rates of suicide among Black women. Ongoing projects are exploring topics such as the mental health needs of Afghani refugees in the U.S. and the impact of social media on youth mental health, both positive and negative.

Beyond a simple nexus for research collaborations, SPIRIT is taking the role of community-builder. True to its name, the initiative seeks to focus on and engender mental wellness, which in the words of Keyes translates to “finding joy and building spirit, both at our School and as a community.”

For years, Keyes has hosted a book club for her doctoral students. As part of SPIRIT, there is now a similar forum for books exploring mental health through a social determinants lens. The current selection is When Crack Was King, which is about the role of drug policy in promoting inequality told through stories of people who survived the crack epidemic. Its author, Donovan X. Ramsey, will join John Pamplin, assistant professor of epidemiology, in conversation on May 9. Separately, a speaker series will host academics specializing in various aspects of mental health research.

SPIRIT is open for all comers. Keyes believes mental health and wellness is a topic we can all relate to and contribute to. “Everyone has been touched by mental health,” she says. “This is a time when all of us need to come together and invest in solutions that make a difference.”