Mental health care and research receive only a tiny percentage of overall philanthropic giving—about 1.3% of all investments in recent years, according to one analysis of the sector—despite the sheer number of people with mental illness. In fact, Inside Philanthropy has been highlighting the dearth of funding for mental health pretty much since we started publishing.

Most recently, Ken Zimmerman, distinguished fellow at NYU’s Furman Center, made a personal and moving plea for the sector to step up to the challenge, outlining the reasons for doing so and a series of areas for opportunity. “These questions are personal for me. Motivated in part by personal tragedy after my young-adult son developed and died from a serious mental illness, I spent time exploring the question after I left my position as director of U.S. programs at the Open Society Foundations. I learned about a profound and wide-reaching domain that has all the ingredients to be a top philanthropic priority. But it is not.”

While there are rumblings that philanthropy is readying to invest more heavily in the field, money is so scarce in comparison with other health-related giving that it will likely take years to reach levels that truly address either the disease burden or the economic burden these conditions place on individual patients and society.

That scarcity of philanthropic dollars has long-term implications for research toward needed treatments in an area of health care and chronic conditions that rarely sees truly game-changing treatments, much less cures. With some of the existing grantmaking going to mental care and services, mental health-related research would receive only a portion of that already-small 1.3%. And that is why the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation’s (BBRF) grantmaking is a valuable link in the chain of discovery.

The BBRF’s recent announcement of $10.3 million for the 2020 cohort of its Young Investigator grant program is the latest tranche in more than three decades of funding for mental health research. The program’s dollars were distributed among 150 early-career neurobiology researchers working to illuminate the causes of psychiatric disorders and find better treatments and prevention strategies. That comes to a bit more than $68,000 per researcher, barely a drop in the bucket in terms of, say, development of a new drug treatment—but it can mean everything in the big picture, as BBRF makes clear.

Since 1987, the organization has awarded over $418 million across 6,000 grants to more than 5,000 scientists around the world to develop treatments, cures and methods of prevention for mental illness. The scientists the organization funds are taking on what have proved to be extremely stubborn medical challenges—conditions like autism, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, depression and others—including the all-too-common problems of addiction and suicide.

According to the foundation, at least 95% of its annual funding comes from individuals and family foundations, and while it does accept corporate donations, funds from pharmaceutical companies are only used for fundraising events and education. One interesting feature in its model is that two family foundations cover all operating expenses, so fundraising pitches can reassure donors that 100% of gifts go toward research.

The foundation publishes all donations over $1,000, and among the many families and individuals on 2019’s list, a few names that jump out include Tipper Gore, the Dalio Foundation, Facebook, Gravity Blankets and tech founder David Heinemeier Hansson. In 2019, the fund also received a $3.5 million endowment gift from the Jane Hilder Harris Trust, which will go toward post-traumatic stress disorder research.

The BBRF awards grants to support work in three areas: basic research, new technologies, and next-generation therapies. Each year, the foundation distributes three main grants: the Young Investigator Grant, the Independent Investigator Grant, and the Distinguished Investigator Grant.

The organization says its funding model encourages innovative research. One of the goals of philanthropic funding for research is to serve as seed funding, allowing scientists to start testing their hypotheses. Should these ideas show promise, the early research studies then become the evidence the scientists need to apply for larger, long-term support from government and industry funders. But without philanthropic support for those first studies, some great scientists—and great ideas—may never have the opportunity to develop to their full potential. According to BBRF’s latest annual report, grant recipients have gone on to land an estimated $4 billion in additional research funding from government sources.

“BBRF Young Investigators represent a new generation of scientists who will pioneer breakthroughs in mental health research,” said Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, in the announcement of the newest round of funding. “With these grants, outstanding researchers are able to pursue bold new ideas to answer important questions or help identify potentially game-changing targets for treatment. The awards function as seed funding for new directions that would otherwise be highly unlikely.”

So it makes sense that about 80% of the current year’s Young Investigator grants went to projects considered as basic research into neurological causes of mental illness. The remaining funded projects aim to develop new therapies, diagnostic tools and early interventions, and new technologies for study of the brain.

In other words, philanthropic dollars for early-stage research and early-career researchers can be the catalyst that attracts much larger grants from public and corporate sources—the kind of grants that keep academic researchers employed and that help pay for the departments and institutions they work for. This is one of the expected roles of philanthropy, and why BBRF must be joined by many more funders in this mission.


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