By Chris Adams

Dr. Bruce Cuthbert, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, described an evolution in the way the psychiatric field thinks of what mental illness is.

“We’re slowly starting to change,” Cuthbert told a group of National Press Foundation fellows.

Cuthbert has served as acting director of the institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal biomedical research center. He’s now in charge of its Research Domain Criteria Unit, which is tasked with developing new ways of studying mental disorders. At its core, this new way of thinking integrates different types of information – from genomics to self-reporting – to better understand basic dimensions of mental illnesses.

He led fellows through a detailed scientific discussion of how researchers’ thinking has evolved, and how those changes might have an impact on treatment strategies.

He cited one recent article in the field that declared “ ‘Schizophrenia’ does not exist.” It noted that only 30 percent of people with a psychotic illness have schizophrenia – but schizophrenia gets most of the attention from researchers and the dollars that follow. Instead of thinking about schizophrenia as a discrete diagnosis, the researcher said old definitions should be thrown out and the field should recognize that psychosis exists along a spectrum.

Cuthbert pointed journalists to the RAISE project – for “Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode.” It is a large-scale research initiative seeking to understand how to coordinate care for people who are experiencing first-episode psychosis.

The National Institute of Mental Health also has detailed information on the range of mental illnesses.