Mental illnesses produce some of the most challenging health problems faced by society, accounting for vast numbers of hospitalizations, disabilities resulting in billions in lost productivity, and sharply elevated risks for suicide. Scientists have long known that these potentially devastating conditions arise from combinations of genes and environmental factors. Genetic research has produced intriguing biological insights into mental illness, showing that particular gene variations predispose some individuals to conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.
Now, thanks to a growing union of epidemiology and molecular biology, the role of the environment in the etiology of mental illness has become more clear. Indeed, E. Fuller Torrey, president of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes treatment advances in psychiatry, suggests that mental illnesses increasingly fall into the realm of environmental health. And from that platform, he says, new treatment advances could soon emerge.