Jürgen Unützer, MD, MPH, MA, believes it’s time we rethink how we’re treating and caring for the millions of people at risk for and affected by mental health, substance use and other brain health disorders. Now he is leading the charge as professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine, holder of the Paul G. Ramsey Endowed Chair for Brain Health Solutions and director of the new Garvey Institute for Brain Health Solutions — launched with a generous gift from Lynn and Mike Garvey. Below he discusses how the Institute is facilitating innovative new ideas across the University of Washington and how we think about and treat brain disorders.
Philanthropists Lynn and Mike Garvey helped launch the Garvey Institute for Brain Health Solutions last year with a $50 million gift. What need were they trying to solve with their gift?
Dr. Unützer: The UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) says brain health problems are the leading cause in the U.S. and globally of all disability related to health.
The main reason for this is that serious brain health problems often show up early in life. If you are someone who struggles with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe anxiety or an addiction problem, you could be limited for most of your adult life. Whereas heart disease and cancer most often come later in life. So, the burden of brain health problems is enormous. However, we probably spend one-tenth of the resources on brain health problems that we do on cancer and heart disease.
We are pretty far behind other areas of medicine and health care when it comes to understanding and preserving brain health. Lynn and Mike Garvey recognized this challenge and made this incredible gift to help us tackle this enormous problem by launching the Garvey Institute for Brain Health Solutions in 2019. This is a family from the Pacific Northwest with a deep passion for our community, and we are fortunate that their strong sense of family and community includes the UW.
Why do you think mental health care lags behind other areas?
When you have a family member who is struggling with mental illness, dementia or another problem that is based in the brain, people are not always as comfortable talking about it as they are with other diseases such as cancer or heart disease.
When I started my medical training some 30 years ago, there was a tremendous amount of fear and stigma attached to cancer and with access to good treatment, much of this stigma has been overcome today. Mental health and other brain health problems still suffers from a fair amount of stigma.
But we are working hard to change this. When someone makes a gift that’s very visible, like the gift from the Garvey family that established our new Institute for Brain Health Solutions, it makes people aware of the problem. It helps people ask questions and feel more comfortable to talk about it, and most important, it helps us attract some of the best and brightest scientists and clinicians to develop better solutions for individuals and families affected by brain health problems. And that gives me a tremendous amount of hope.
Not long after the founding of the Garvey Institute, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. What have been some of the challenges and highlights from the Institute’s inaugural year?
It has certainly been a challenge to launch a new institute in the midst of a global pandemic, but we have actually made a lot of progress in this initial year.
We had to pivot from in-person meetings to getting people together on Zoom, but we have created a whole host of opportunities for people to come together virtually and talk about truly innovative ways to improve brain health. We convened three working groups of scientists and clinicians who are experts in areas such as cognitive aging and brain health, the effects of physical and emotional trauma to the brain, and in the areas of substance abuse and addiction.
Recently, we hosted a fascinating conversation about new approaches to addiction medicine such as developing small molecules and vaccines to prevent or reduce drug use. What if we could use such approaches to prevent a drug from passing through the blood-brain barrier so that it doesn’t give you the euphoric experience that can lead to addiction? Such new approaches could be true game changers when it comes to working with people at risk for addiction.
Our vision for the Garvey Institute is to gather together clinicians and scientists who will take new and different approaches to solving difficult problems in brain health, not just to do more of the same.
The Garvey Institute recently announced the recipients of 11 different innovation awards, totaling $1 million, for projects across the UW. What is the goal of these awards?
The winning projects touch on all three of the institute’s initial areas of focus: cognitive aging, trauma and addictions. We chose 11 projects that represent some of the most exciting ideas for innovations in brain health — they all could be absolute game changers.
These initial awards went to teams from four UW schools, 13 departments, and numerous centers and collaborators. Some of the winning ideas explore innovative ways to improve cognitive rehabilitation following mild traumatic brain injury; others explore how to improve treatment for opioid-use disorder or how to improve training for suicide prevention.
These initial projects are mostly proof-of-concept studies. If they are successful, they will help catalyze larger projects and grants. As with all science, not all of them will work. But if we don’t try something new, we will still have millions of people suffering from disabling brain health, mental health and addiction problems a generation from now.
In your opinion, why is UW Medicine the best place for the Garvey Institute?
Over the past few years, we have been consistently rated one of the most innovative universities in the U.S. and in the world. We also have a tremendous network of healthcare professionals working throughout the Pacific Northwest, and we have some of the best training programs for new healthcare professionals in all areas of brain health.
We are poised to use the enormous human capital we have here at UW and at UW Medicine to solve some of these tough problems and to come up with some powerful new ideas together. UW faculty are in the best position to test new clinical approaches, and when they are effective to scale up and quickly get them to people who need help.
How can donors help move this work forward?
There is so much we can do and philanthropy is critical to this work. Traditional government research funders often aren’t willing to take the kinds of risks it takes to approach a difficult problem from a completely new perspective. It can also be hard to successfully translate research in the lab to everyday healthcare.
For that to happen, we have to support our clinicians and researchers to take time away from the lab and from the clinic to get new treatments out into practice. We have to work with insurance companies and others to find ways to pay for new treatments. And we have to make sure patients and families have quicker access to the latest treatments. These are all areas where philanthropy can make a big difference.
The photo above of Dr. Unützer was taken in 2017.