This mindset might be the key to mental health breakthroughs.
Serendipity has played a significant role in many scientific advancements in mental health throughout history, like the discovery of lithium as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Now more than ever, we are in desperate need of similarly impactful discoveries in mental health. Adopting a serendipity mindset—the ability to use uncertainty as a pathway to a more successful and purposeful life—to reverse engineer the systems needed for more breakthroughs, and to span and fuse disciplines, might be the way to achieve this.
The Leading Cause of Ill-Health and Disability
The world is in the throes of a global mental health crisis with severe physical, social, and economic ramifications. According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report, around 450 million individuals currently suffer from mental health conditions, marking mental health disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.1 Mental disorders account for 5 out of the top 10 causes of global disability. Although treatments are available, nearly two-thirds of individuals with a known mental health disorder will never seek help from a health professional.2 Surveys in India and China, which represent a third of the global population, have suggested this number is even higher, with more than 80% of people with any mental health or substance use disorder not seeking treatment. In part, this is due to the pervasive stigma of mental illness that permeates societies and healthcare systems, resulting in systemic underinvestment in mental health.
When individuals do seek help, they may not be able to receive the care they need. According to a recent report from a team of 28 global experts assembled by Lancet, the world’s failure to respond to the mental health crisis has resulted in a “monumental loss of human capabilities and avoidable suffering.”3 The commission estimates more than 13 million lives could be saved every year if mental illness was treated properly—or at all. Alongside the profound costs of human lives and avoidable suffering, there are colossal financial ramifications. Indeed, epidemiological modelling suggests the rising cost of mental illness will hit $16 trillion USD by 2030.3 COVID-19 has amplified many of these issues, triggering social and physical distancing, economic hardship, and challenges in accessing care.
The 21st century will be largely defined by our collective response to the global mental health crisis—and beacons of hope are beginning to emerge. Stigma is reducing, awareness is increasing, allowing people to slowly overcome back the barriers to seeking care. Meanwhile, venture capital funding for mental health start-ups has been growing rapidly and accelerated even more during COVID. PitchBook data showed 146 deals ranked in nearly $1.6 billion in venture capital investments as of December 10th, 2020.4 A decade ago, there were only 3 deals, worth $6.6 million, whereas last year the total was $893 million from 111 deals. However, these advances on their own will not be able to solve the above stated global challenges. A paradigm shift is needed to solve the unprecedented complexities and challenges associated with the current global mental health crisis. This shift will require the education of governments and healthcare systems of the world, empowerment of consumers to take charge of their own mental health, and the use of technology both for prevention and treatment of mental disorders.
Convergence Mental Health as a Mechanism for Serendipity
Mental health is a prototypical wicked problem in that it embodies large numbers of diverse factors from biology, sociology, genetics, and psychology to economics and beyond.5 A serendipity mindset6 can counteract those influences and ease the anxiety that comes with the inherent unpredictability of the world. This outlook centers on being the agent of one’s own good luck. An individual can shift from a passive victim of circumstance to an active creator of opportunities by embracing the uncertainty that happens each day.6 Training the serendipity muscle in turn trains one’s ability to solve problems by identifying positive outcomes from situations and making accidents more meaningful.
Interdisciplinary collaboration is the driver of serendipity. Those who operate with a serendipity mindset are not luckier than others, but rather cultivate luck and solutions by consistently seeking out new experiences and reaching across multiple industries. Convergence science is “an approach to problem solving that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. It integrates knowledge, tools, and thought strategies from various fields for tackling challenges that exist at the interfaces of multiple fields.”5 It can be a mechanism for serendipity through integration of knowledge, tools, and thought-strategies from various fields for tackling challenges that exist at the interface of multiple disciplines.5
In the context of mental health, convergence science involves the integration of scientists, clinicians, bioinformaticists, global health experts, social scientists, health economists, engineers, technology entrepreneurs, medical educators, caregivers, and patients—we call this Convergence Mental Health.7,8 Synergy between government, academia, and industry is also vital. Convergence science is the Ariadne thread necessary to navigate the intricate labyrinth of global mental health problems, bringing about urgently needed progress in science and society. Examples of Convergence Mental Health-associated advances are outlined in the Table.
Innovations at all different levels are urgently needed. Solutions will need sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, ethicists, scientists, media practitioners, crisis management experts, policy makers, senior civil servants, and more. Convergence Mental Health7 provides direction for these shifts in how teams work. As COVID-19 has demonstrated, distance does not stop the wheel of innovation, and in fact can propel it by lowering the perceived barriers to novel ways of working and collaborating. As we embark on building the new normal, Convergence Mental Health will play a key role in this rapidly unfolding change.
Convergence Mental Health provides a historic opportunity to lead to a new era of innovation and progress, leading to improved outcomes for all people and preparing psychiatry to meet the unprecedented mental health challenges of the 21st century. By adopting a serendipity mindset, we can learn to harness uncertainty to create unique solutions across industries.
Erin Smith is an associate with the PRODEO Institute and Thiel Fellow at Stanford University. Jessica Carson is Director of Innovation at a major mental health association and expert in residence at Georgetown University, and the author of Wired This Way. Rebecca Leaman is a masters candidate in Global Affairs from New York University. Dr Hynes is Senior Advisor to the OECD Secretary General and Head of the New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit at the OECD. Dr Lavretsky is a professor of psychiatry at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr Berk is a professor of psychiatry at the Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT) at Deakin University. Dr Eyre is cofounder of the PRODEO Institute, adjunct associate professor with IMPACT at Deakin University, and co-lead of the OECD Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative.
1. World Health Organization. The World Health Report 2001: Mental health: new understanding, new hope. 2001. https://www.who.int/whr/2001/en/
2. Bosely S. World in mental health crisis of ‘monumental suffering’, say experts. The Guardian. October 9, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/09/world-mental-health-crisis-monumental-suffering-say-experts
3. Patel V, Saxena S, Lund C, et al. The Lancet Commission on global mental health and sustainable development.Lancet. 2018;392(10157):1553-1598.
4. Lee JL. Mental health tech startups fetch record investments with COVID-19. Reuters. December 15, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-mental-health/mental-health-tech-startups-fetch-record-investments-with-covid-19-idUKKBN28P1SA
5. National Research Council. Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. National Academies Press; 2014.
6. Busch C. The Serendipity Mindset. Penguin Random House; 2020.
7. Eyre HA, Berk M, Lavretsky H, Reynolds C. Convergence Mental Health. Oxford University Press; 2021.
8. Eyre HA, Lavretsky H, Forbes M, et al. Convergence science arrives: how does it relate to psychiatry? Acad Psychiatry. 2017;41(1):91-99.
9. Picard RW. Affective computing. MIT press; 2000.
10. Richardson S, Sinha A, Vahia I, et al. Brain health living labs. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2020.
11. Patel V. Why mental health matters to global health. Transcult Psychiatry. 2014;51(6):777-89.
12. Shah RN, Berry OO. The rise of venture capital investing in mental health. JAMA Psychiatry. 2020.
13. Chang DD, Storch EA, Black L, et al. Promoting tech transfer between space and global mental health. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2020;91(9):737-745.
14. Ternes K, Iyengar V, Lavretsky H, et al. Brain health INnovation Diplomacy: a model binding diverse disciplines to manage the promise and perils of technological innovation. Int Psychogeriatr. 2020;32(8):955-979.
15. Smith E, Ali D, Wilkerson B, et al. A Brain Capital Grand Strategy: toward economic reimagination. Mol Psychiatry. 2021;26(1):3-22.
16. New Approaches to Economic Challenges, PRODEO Institute. Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Accessed March 23, 2021. https://www.oecd.org/naec/brain-capital/