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There has been a sea-change in conversation and understanding about mental health in the last three years. A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 90% of U.S. adults believe that the country is facing a mental health crisis, due likely in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Severe mental health challenges affect those experiencing them -- and people who love, work with, and provide care for someone with a mental health condition. In a moving op-ed published recently in The New York Times, writer Hilary de Vries wrote about the harrowing challenges she faced in supporting her sister with severe mental illness. From navigating a complex system that can mean family members are the only point of care for a person experiencing a mental health condition to a cocktail of medicines that offer limited effectiveness, every day can be a rollercoaster of emotion, financial stressors, and worry.
Bipolar disorder can be passed from a parent to their biological children. As de Vries’ story indicates, why severe mental illness manifests in one sibling, but not another is still a mystery. Breakthrough Discoveries for Thriving with Bipolar Disorder, or BD2, is a new initiative aiming to uncover these genetic mysteries and more.
Philanthropic collaboration and funding have been the driving force behind BD2. Seven months since the Baszucki, Brin, and Dauten families joined the Milken Institute to launch BD2, the initiative awarded two grants totaling $15 million over three years to the Broad Institute and the CommonMind Consortium. The Broad Institute, in collaboration with UCLA and the New York Genome Center, will uncover the genetic architecture of bipolar disorder by sequencing over 30,000 samples from people of non-European ancestry. This increased diversity of samples will accelerate the discoveries of rare genes that play a role in the biology of bipolar disorder. The CommonMind Consortium will use human brain tissue from people who had bipolar disorder to build a brain atlas that maps out the molecules in impacted brain areas.
The science funded by these BD2 grants will provide a wealth of genetic and molecular data on bipolar disorder that future hypothesis-driven research can build upon. Such types of science are expensive and often not supported by traditional funders such as the federal government. However, discovery-driven science can often catalyze profound change by providing large datasets for the research community to analyze. This crowdsourcing will quickly identify new genetic and molecular targets. Once these targets are named, traditional funders such as the National Institute of Mental Health will fund these hypothesis-driven studies, leading to new interventions and therapies.
Philanthropic funding is one of the few mechanisms that can effectively provide this type of support. As a funder collaborative of three philanthropists who have committed $150 million to research and improved care, BD2 has the scale and opportunity to do so. Not only will this data be used by the research community, but the clinical community can also use any insights to improve care.
Care for people experiencing bipolar disorder is complex. This is why BD2 has been structured the way it has — to break down the silos between research and care. Collaboration and open science will help breakthroughs come faster and improve the understanding of bipolar disorder. Only then can people who experience bipolar disorder get the care they need, so they can also thrive.