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The Problem in Academia and Mental Health Research

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In the last decade, I have made no secret my scepticism about the clinical value of new research in mental health.

I am just not confident we are targeting the right areas or bodies of underdeveloped research and moving forward in the important or needed areas to truly impact mental health as a discourse or field of inquiry.

As a social worker, I sit on a vast, layered, and profoundly broader body of knowledge, theoretical understanding, and foundation of information than some other more narrow-focused disciplines in mental health.

I believe it is up to social workers, prosumers (people with lived experience and professional training), and other more ornate backgrounds and experiences to jettison research into the next era.

ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) and other hot interventions like dialogical therapies share some commonalities and what has indeed become cancer in mental health research. This cancer, located at the metaphysical polarities of the clinical spectrum for accepted, empirical, and ‘evidence-based’ research, continues to eat away and carve out the discourse of mental health treatment from within.

The understanding and esoteric nature of these hot, miracle modalities continue to overshadow what we practitioners are setting out to do. Instead of practitioners learning a vast, eclectic and broad skillset to treat all diagnosable or treatable conditions, the task has become estranged from healing and the helping process.

Boxed into a small physiological space, clinicians must seek new research and identify gaps in current mental health trends and community-based needs. In a sense, these mental health clinician-crats (and those who decide what techniques are in and out ) are ruling out and marginalizing hope and healing for a population segment that could benefit and stand to profit from advancing research forward. Unfortunately, the field isn’t keeping pace. Instead, analysis and data collection are limited to the ‘in’ treatments. These are the modalities practiced by those with more influence in the field than intellectual prowess.

I am very serious about the set of propositions I am laying out here. Mental Health researchers need to shift their focus immediately. There must be a seismic shift in how research is chartered. This feat must be the next item on Academe’s agenda for 2022. 

So, who is tasked with appraising the clinical value of our research these days? Who is validating the claims researchers are making? Scholarly work, studies, published papers – all of these outlets and mediums for disseminating good information in our field have bias.

We must accept and own these biases. Peer-reviewed work, blinded. However, we tell ourselves our work is pure, intellectually, and ethically solvent. Research needs to be overhauled and torn down at the very ground floor we built the discourse on before we can call ourselves truly non-bias and spiritual in our commitment to unassailable research in mental health. Let’s be honest here.

Endorsement of peer work in academia is as rife with political intrigue and back door funneling of money and funding as the White House. The difference with academia is that we refuse to talk about it. And there are no television dramas depicting our ethical and moral battles in the wings of institutions and library halls. 

Like the perseveration of our legacy in the social work discipline, scholars must redirect the very meaning-making and re-target the research areas that are never discussed. This enormous gap, the missing or underdeveloped fields of study, plague researchers like myself interested in elevating higher education. These areas need further investigation. Some will contest the bodies of knowledge we hold incontestable, perhaps even unassailable. 

Let’s be honest about what we do in mental health. No modality, no study, no manuscript for submission is genuinely above reproach. There are taboo areas of how we do things as problematic researchers. 

If we do not overhaul academia, pedagogy, and practice sooner rather than later, the Academy will be in crisis. I would hazard to say the destruction of this field as we know it as an accepted discourse of intellectual inquiry. So before it is too late, ask questions and continue to go against the current until the very armamentarium of new research moves with us towards a brighter, healthier vista of tomorrow.

Max E. Guttman, LCSW  is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.


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