Springer Nature supports the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the researchers and practitioners in policy and business tirelessly working towards them. For Mental Health Month we spoke to Dr Jack Tsai, the Editor-in-Chief of npj Mental Health Research.
Please tell us about the nature of your work.
I would describe my work as focused on innovative models of collaborative care targeting the needs of adults with serious mental health and housing needs. Most of this work has focused on homeless populations and ways to engage and provide behavioral health, primary care, and social services to them.
Does your work intend to directly address ways in which we can improve mental health care services or access to care? If so, in which way?
Not everybody is interested or capable of receiving traditional office-based mental health care for a variety of reasons. So the challenge I am seeking to undertake is to reach, engage, and serve those who need other ways to receive mental health care. This can be through new person-based approaches like through peer specialists, through non-traditional settings like legal aid offices, or new modalities like tele-health or virtual care.
What are the short and long-term goals of your work?
My short-term goal is to develop interventions that are novel, different, and exciting to me and recipients. As one of my mentors often liked to say, most interventions do not work. But even if the interventions don’t end up working, it’s the adventure of science and research to develop new things and test them.
My long-term goal, which may sound strange, is to understand how and when people can be weaned off interventions. Many interventions, whether they are medications, therapies, or social services, are offered with an indefinite time period. But in order to maximize people’s independence and recovery, providers need to know when to step-down or terminate care.
What do you think is the most productive way that researchers can engage policy makers? What has your experience been with policy engagement?
Like many people, policymakers are busy people so providing short concise ways to communicate to them (e.g., briefs, infographics, short video clips) are important. In your communications, it should be clear what your ASK is and how it may benefit others. So far, my role in policy activities has been to educate, describe empirical evidence, and outline pros and cons of different approaches. By being impartial, one remains a trusted source of data and information.
What does public engagement look like in your field and how important do you think it is for researchers to make a societal impact with their work?
Since I work in public health, public engagement is an essential component of the work of me and my colleagues. In other fields, public engagement often occurs at the end of the project when the findings are ready to be disseminated to the public. However, in public health, public engagement can occur during the development of a project to obtain community buy-in, it can occur mid-way into the project to help troubleshoot some issues, and it occurs at the end of the project during the dissemination stage. Engaging the public and communities in which you are working in helps keep projects grounded, relevant, and invested in by the community. Engaging the public also allows you to receive constructive comments and keeps your work honest.
What progress would you like to see next towards the improvement of mental health care, worldwide and locally?
I would like to see more concerted efforts to combine pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Many prescribers know little about psychological therapy and many therapists know little about medications. I’m fortunate to have been trained as a clinical psychologist to provide therapy but I also have a master’s degree in clinical psychopharmacology, so I understand the value of medications. Many conditions are best served by some combination of medication and therapy, and there are also many opportunities for both of these to also be combined with complementary and alternative medicine approaches as well.
How can progress in science & research contribute to the improvement of mental health care access and support the fight against stigma?
Technological advances have already contributed greatly to improving access to mental health care and reducing stigma. For example, online resources and social media has destigmatized the many ways that people can and should seek help. I expect new technologies will continue to improve things in this respect. However, I think it’s also important to be careful about unintended consequences. In efforts to reduce stigma, we don’t want to trivialize mental illness, over-pathologize natural human reactions, or dismiss human propensity for resilience. Of course, it’s a delicate balance that progress in science and research can help tread.
About the author: Jack Tsai, PhD MSCP serves as Campus Dean and Professor of Public Health at UTHealth, and Research Director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Homeless Programs Office. He is a clinical psychologist and previously served as a professor and directed the Division of Mental Health Services Research at Yale School of Medicine for a decade. Dr. Tsai currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for npj Mental Health Research.