Depressed About the State of Mental Health Funding? Read This

These are interesting and hopeful times when it comes to mental illness and philanthropy. Two years ago, we reported on the largest-ever gift in this area when Ted Stanley gave $675 million to the Broad Institute to research the biological causes of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and we've since reported on the $275 million commitment by Steve and Alex Cohen to address the mental health needs of veterans.  

Other developments in recent years include a $25 million gift for psychiatry by Bill and Susan Oberndorf to the University of California-San Francisco and another $20 million gift to UCSF's Department of Psychiatry by Ray and Dagmar Dolby. Also, earlier this fall, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation posted a request for proposals from organizations, researchers, and scholars with groundbreaking ideas for dramatically improving the state of mental health research. 

There are also less direct sources of new funding, as more philanthropists have given big for brain research that could yield important insights and breakthroughs related to mental illness. An upsurge in attention to homelessness is another example of a funding stream that touches on mental illness. 

Still, mental illness continues to be a neglected area of health funding in the grand scheme of philanthropic giving. And one of the many reasons this is disappointing is that mental illness is implicated in so many other problems that funders are seeking to address, such as poverty, homelessness and violence. That's especially true of depression, the most common mental disorder in the world, and the leading cause of disability worldwide. Depression is also a hidden driver of many of the other health problems that funders do worry about, with research suggesting that it's a significant contributor to the global burden of disease. 

With so many funders looking for ways to leverage their money right now, depression is an area that should be getting much more attention from donors. 

One encouraging piece of news in this regard is that the University of Michigan recently received a $10.75 million gift to back depression research at the U of M Depression Center. The gift comes from alumni Frances and Kenneth Eisenberg. The funds support a wide range of projects and activities including increasing the number of research projects toward understanding the causes of depression, the development of personalized treatments, funding a professorship of depression and neurosciences, creating a collaborative to support community outreach, and establishing an award for emerging scholars in the field.

The U of M Depression Center was the first "comprehensive center established to fight depression and associated stigma on all fronts." The center has encouraged the creation of more than 30 similar organizations in the U.S. and Canada. The fact that this first comprehensive center addressing depression was established just 15 years ago speaks volumes about the state of mental illness funding and this field of research generally. Let's hope we continue to move into a very different era.