Does This Big Gift Mean Funding for Mental Illness Research is Picking Up?

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Some major health threats carry a heavy social stigma that can delay or reduce widespread public and private support for research and care, like the victim-blaming around lung cancer, addiction or STDs. Some health problems are exceptionally hard to address medically, which also slows progress.

Serious mental illness has it all: widespread public misunderstanding amplified by the difficulties that have long kept the functions of the brain and psyche mysterious.

Few areas of health have been as problematic, socially and scientifically, as mental illness. Recently, however, the buzz is that psychiatric research into mental illness may be entering a watershed phase in which new and effective treatments seem attainable. And this optimism may explain increasing philanthropy for research into care and cures for mental illnesses.

Last year, we wrote about what was called the largest private donation in the history of psychiatric research: Ted Stanley's $650 million pledge to the Broad Institute. Mental health experts hoped the massive give would kickstart a golden age of research into psychiatric research.

This week, we had news of another notable grant for mental illness research: the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund's $20 million gift to its Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

According to a UCSF press release, the Dolby gift comes at an opportune time to break this therapeutic logjam, said Matthew W. State, chair and Oberndorf Family Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF. There's been rapid progress in psychiatric genomics and neuroscience, and an erosion of traditional barriers between medicine, psychiatry and other scientific disciplines.

The gift supports research on mood disorders to advance understanding and treatment of depression, bipolar disorder and related illnesses. It supports UCSF research on the genetics, neurobiology and brain circuitry underlying these disordersboth to discover new therapies and to destigmatize mental illness.

The donation creates an endowment for recruiting two senior distinguished professors, as well as providing support for junior faculty studying mental illnesses. It also supports clinical research and treatment programs. It funds collaborations between UCSF and the Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience, an important funder of basic sciences, including brain research.

Such progress is desperately needed. You'll probably only be slightly surprised that the World Health Organization rates depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting an estimated 350 million people. Yet progress in treating and preventing depression and bipolar disorder has been slow, and no truly game-changing medications for these illnesses have been developed in decades.