"Proof of Concept." How This Funder Backs Young Researchers on Mental Health

Despite efforts to raise mental health awareness through various campaigns, it remains a miserably underfunded area of philanthropy. That's surprising, since around one in five adults in the United States 18 and older suffer from mental illness. This works out to about 44 million people. For those aged 10 to 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death with 90 percent of those deaths due to an underlying mental illness. Given these statistics, it's striking that mental illness doesn't attract more philanthropic dollars.

As we've been reporting, though, there are signs that this may be changing. Ted Stanley's massive $650 million gift to the Broad Institute in 2014 for mental illness research was a milestone event, and we've reported on a number of major gifts since then. We've also been reporting on local health legacy foundations addressing mental health issues through their funding. That's a relatively new and encouraging development. 

Meanwhile, there are a handful of stalwart funders in this space that we like to check in on regularly. Foremost among these is the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF). Formerly known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, BBRF is one of the world’s leading funders of mental health research. Since 1987, it has been “committed to alleviating the suffering caused by mental illness by awarding grants that will lead to advances and breakthroughs in scientific research.” Since it opened its doors in the late 1980s, the foundation has awarded nearly $400 million in grants to support scientific research in the mental health field, and that number, thankfully, continues to grow.


BBRF recently announced grants totaling $13.6 million to 196 young scientists around the world. The foundation awarded the grants through its Young Investigator program. The program supports research covering a wide variety of mental illnesses, with grants serving “as catalysts for additional funding, providing researchers with ‘proof of concept’ for their work.” Each awardee receives up to $35,000 per year for two years to extend their research fellowship training or begin their careers as independent researchers. According to BBRF, the overall goal of the program is to help young scientists launch their careers in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry.

The majority of grants in this latest round of awards support studies concerning mental illness in general. Specific mental illnesses receiving the most funding include schizophrenia, addiction and depression. Autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder also received funding attention, nabbing 11, 15 and 13 grants respectively. Receiving fewer than five grants in each category were bipolar disorder, eating disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suicide prevention, psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder.

That’s a long list of mental illnesses, and the grants of just $35,000 per year are not on the generous side for investigators. So the salami is being sliced pretty thin, here. On the other hand, these grants are targeting early-career researchers, and that kind of money can make a real difference at a critical time. Young scientists that hang on can be positioned to raise bigger research money down the line.

Since 1987, BBRF has awarded nearly 3,000 Young Investigator grants for a total of nearly $260 million. According to the foundation, most young investigators go on to receive subsequent financial support at a value of 11 to 19 times the original grant amount. Over the past few decades, that $260 million resulted in an impressive $2.5 billion in subsequent research funding. Perhaps just as importantly, BBRF's initial support has been crucial for these young scientists to get their work off the ground. According to the foundation, had it not been for this grant money, many of the young scientists' research projects would not otherwise have received funding.

This kind of leverage is what smart philanthropy is all about.