Science made tremendous strides in treating mental illness in the years between 1800 and the 1930. As Edward Shorter points out in his "A History of Psychiatry" perhaps the greatest challenge of 19th century psychiatry was neuro-syphilis. Nobody treats neuro-syphilis today with talk therapy or anti-psychotic medications because we know what causes it. In the developed world syphilis is treated with anti-biotics before it ever destroys a person's nerves and brain. But the days of simple cures for debilitating mental illnesses are over for the foreseeable future, though, for obvious reasons, people wish it weren't so.
Marvin Ross wrote a piece about evidence-based medicine versus alternative medicine in mental health care titled "The Only Thing That Will Improve Mental Illness Treatment is Science." Like Mr. Ross, I am opposed to using public money for treatments that not only lack a base of evidence showing their efficacy but have been shown to have no benefit. But I am also opposed to huge investment in research when known, effective treatments go begging hat in hand. There are plenty of things that we know help people who are mentally ill to live healthier, safer, happier lives. These are treatments that have been demonstrated to be effective in study after study; stable supported housing, case management, regular follow-up, early intervention for psychosis, psycho-education and, in some cases, talk therapy. As a society we don't do them. In fact, in most places in North America government is pulling away from offering these services at taxpayer expense.
If there is a limited pie of government money to be spent on the mentally ill, why do we persist in spending it to look for a magic bullet that will cure schizophrenia or autism or Alzheimer's when for the same money we could treat these diseases mitigating a lot of the worst effects of the illness? In the last forty years with all the billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies that has been spent on brain research there has been no significant clinical advance on the treatment of these diseases -- despite hundreds of breathless reports that a cure is just over the horizon. If you want to look for magical, non-evidence-based practices, spending public dollars on neuroscience in the hopes of an imminent cure for serious mental illness is akin to using Reiki to treat a broken leg.
I think there are several reasons we persist in this way of doing things. One relates directly to the rise of alternative medicine. Both Reiki and neuroscience journalism about fantastic breakthroughs in neurotransmitters appeal to a similar human impulse; the desire for a comprehensive and elegant solution to complex problems. But the low-hanging fruit of scientific discovery has been plucked already. Science has become so arcane that Clarke's rule that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' is true of most science today for most people. We may believe that we understand how our cellphones work but I am guessing that most non-scientists would have a hard time being able to say clearly where the limits of science (eg. the dubious theory that imbalances of neurotransmitters cause mental illness) leave off and where the limits of magic (homeopathy's dubious claims that microscopic amounts of certain natural occurring substances can treat imbalances in your body's chemistry) take up. Add to this the hiddenness of science which is increasingly conducted behind paywalls and the result is that most people have as strong a sense as ever that "scientific" means whatever a person in a white lab coat says and the only choice is whether to swallow it whole or reject it.
The other factor that is stopping us from treating mental illness as it should be treated is the fact that people don't get fabulously wealthy by giving home follow-up and nursing and psychotherapy and regular injections to the mentally ill. If reimbursed properly, a lot of people might live good lives working in these areas. Nurses and social workers, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists put more of the money they make back into the economy than executives and board members of pharmaceutical and medical tech companies. I am not convinced that we need to choose between good research in neuroscience and effective high quality treatment of the mentally ill. But spending on treating mental illness in the ways that we know work well is a much better investment as a society than chasing the unicorn of a single molecule to cure schizophrenia and incidentally make a few people fabulously rich.
Science can't fix our culture's obsession with quick fixes or our bent ideas about money and mental health. It is our collective responsibility to demand that public dollars be used where they will most benefit the mentally ill. That isn't Reiki but it also isn't putting college students into MRIs and asking them to read Jane Austen and saying you're looking for a cure to autism.