Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps one of the most famous people to have experienced bipolar disorder (BD). The story of his talent and creativity, and his experience of mental illness and death from suicide have been well-documented.

BD is not a new disease — but it is among many that are in dire need of funding. In early 2021, the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP) published Giving Smarter: Philanthropic Opportunities to Advance Bipolar Disorder Research.

This guide includes an analysis of federal funding for BD research — which stems mainly from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) — and reveals that support for BD research is a fraction of funding provided to other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. In fact, our analysis showed that funding for BD research exclusive of these conditions decreased during the 2010 to 2019 time period.

The guide also highlights the gaps and barriers in BD research that philanthropy, as a unique asset class, can address. Because philanthropic funding is flexible, it can play a vital role in advancing research that federal support cannot. One area is in translational research, which is critical for moving basic science discoveries into therapies, molecules or tools that are ready to test in patients. These types of projects, which look to improve and develop interventions, are generally less funded by NIMH, and too early for biotech and pharma to support.

The Baszucki Brain Research Fund recently partnered with CSP to roll out a plan to provide research funding to fill this critical gap, allocating $9 million to fund translational and clinically relevant research programs around the world. The appetite from the research community was apparent, with more than 100 initial applications. More than 40 grants were eventually funded, providing a much-needed lifeline to bridge basic research and clinical implementation.

BD is a complex condition and therefore little about its progression, multiplicity of presentations, and biological underpinnings is understood. Even if the NIMH provided additional grants to the field, the traditional single-research lab funding strategy may not make a dent in our understanding of BD. But a path towards improved treatment and care is possible. Innovative research strategies such as consortium-based team science, health networks that promote best clinical care practices, and longitudinal studies that follow people with BD over periods of time, will spark our knowledge and understanding of the disorder.

A myriad of advancements, from both the biomedical and data science worlds, means that the tools to address complex disorders such as BD are now available. The flexibility and innovative nature of philanthropic funding, especially using funder collaboratives, can indeed support these types of scaled-up research strategies. Improving outcomes for BD is not an insurmountable problem, it’s just an underfunded one.

March 30 is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday — and the day the world marks World Bipolar Day. While the current funding landscape for BD research seems unfavorable, philanthropy is providing the opportunity to transform the field. More philanthropic funding is needed. Supporting novel strategies of research that are needed to break open the complexity of BD will help develop effective interventions to provide additional tools for people with BD to live their best lives.

For more information, and to join the Milken Institute’s efforts in partnership with philanthropists on BD, please visit CSP’s program page on bipolar disorder or contact us