Clinical Trials in Mental Health: The Basics

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

If you experience mental health challenges or are caring for someone who is, you may or may not have heard of clinical trials. You may have even enrolled in a clinical trial with the hope that an experimental treatment would prove effective for your diagnosis. But most of us are not familiar with clinical trials or why they are so important for achieving progress in mental health care. Here are some basic answers about clinical trials and information about how to find one if this kind of research interests you.

What are clinical trials?


Clinical trials are research studies that focus on the causes, detection, treatment, or prevention of a physical or psychological condition. That’s right – clinical trials are not just experiments involving new drugs. A clinical trial might focus on whether changes in blood sugar or thyroid levels indicate risk for depression. Another might evaluate whether aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety symptoms. While all types of clinical trials are vital to the management and possible eradication of a condition, clinical trials that test new drugs receive the most attention in the media.

Who can participate in clinical trials?

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Each clinical trial has its own set of eligibility criteria driven by the research topic. When you search for clinical trials (and I’ll show you where to do this soon), you will be able to determine which trials are appropriate depending on their eligibility criteria. For instance, one study on post-traumatic stress disorder might require a person to have been diagnosed at least one year ago, while another might allow a person to have been diagnosed at any time as long as the person is not taking any psychotropic medications. Some drug studies do not want participants taking any drugs that may interfere with the experimental drug.

Keep in mind that some clinical trials are geared toward caregivers and family members instead of people with the mental health diagnosis. For instance, a study might test the effectiveness of support groups in reducing stress among caregivers of those with bipolar disorder. Other studies are looking for “healthy volunteers” to aid in prevention studies.

Do clinical trials pay participants?

This depends on the study. You may have seen clinical trials advertised in newspapers and magazines that offer payment for participation. This is actually rare. More commonly, clinical trial participants actually incur costs related to travel and medical procedures not covered by insurance. Be sure to ask about associated costs whenever considering a clinical trial.

How do I find a clinical trial?

The most comprehensive online database of clinical trials is maintained by the U.S. government and can be found at Here, you can search by study type, medical condition, location, and a number of other criteria. Results provide detailed descriptions of studies including eligibility criteria and contact information. The National Institute of Mental Health also provides information about studies listed at that are currently recruiting participants for mental health research.

Why should I (or my family member) participate in a clinical trial?

The difficulty in recruiting and enrolling clinical trial participants is the greatest barrier, aside from funding, to developing effective treatment and prevention strategies for serious physical and psychological conditions. By participating, you can help overcome this barrier.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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