As director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 2002 to 2015, Thomas Insel, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, oversaw more than $20 billion in grants for research into human behavior and the brain. “The scientific progress in our field has been mind-boggling,” he observes. “But the public health outcomes have gotten worse.” Although breakthroughs in other areas of medicine have led to falling death rates from heart disease, stroke and most infectious diseases, he notes that new knowledge about the mechanisms of mental illness did little to help the mentally ill.
In his new book “Healing,” 70-year-old Dr. Insel writes that during his tenure as “the nation’s psychiatrist,” the suicide rate in the United States soared 33 percent, overdose deaths tripled, and rates of poverty, homelessness and incarceration among people with brain disorders. the disorders increased. Today, suicide kills more than 47,000 people a year, three times as many as homicides, and the rate continues to rise in the United States even as it declines in nearly every other country. He recalls a presentation of the institute’s research in 2015 when he was reprimanded by a man whose son suffered from schizophrenia and lived on the streets. “Our house is on fire,” the man told Dr. Insel, “and you’re talking about the chemistry of the paint.”