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How Increased Fundraising And Research Dollars For Mental Health Can Save Lives

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Sweat beading down his face and lake water spilling from his wetsuit, Adrian Hunter and close friend Brian Litke took on a serious physical challenge to raise money and awareness for a good cause. However, this was not the ALS "Ice Bucket Challenge" that has been so popular over the past summers. Instead, the duo competed and finished the 2016 Saint George 70.3 Ironman to raise awareness and money for mental health causes.

To date, they have raised nearly $17,000 and directed 100% of the funds to The Brain and Behavior Foundation (BBF). BBF awards grants to young, mid-career and senior scientists, who conduct innovative and "out of the box" research to achieve breakthrough advancements and, ultimately, decode the complexity of mental illnesses.

Their efforts were personal, as Adrian lost a brother to an overdose in 2014. One of the reasons he chose to raise money and awareness for mental health by competing in an Ironman is that he had trouble finding a walk, run or fundraising drive in honor of mental health causes.

The difficulty to find a suitable mental health fundraising event got me thinking and raised a number of questions regarding how fundraising and research funds compare for physical vs. mental illness and how the number of Americans impacted by these diseases compares to the money available for research:

  1. What Are The Top Three Deadliest Diseases?
  2. The top three deadliest diseases (in terms of Americans killed per year in 2011) were:

1) Heart Disease (~600,000 deaths/year)
2) COPD (~143,000 deaths/year)
3) diabetes (~74,000 deaths/year)

  • How Well Funded Is Research For The Top Three Deadliest Diseases?

  • Heart Disease, COPD and Diabetes rank #3, #6 and #7, respectively, in terms of money raised.

  • Which Diseases Receive the Most Fundraising Dollars?

  • The three diseases with the most fundraising dollars in 2011 were:

    1) Breast Cancer (~258M)
    2) Prostate Cancer (147M)
    3) Heart Disease (54M)

  • How Does Fundraising For Mental Illness Compare?

  • Suicide led to about 40,000 deaths in 2011 (nearly the same number of deaths as breast cancer). However, it was the least-funded disease on the chart. In contrast, breast cancer was the most well funded. Suicide was out funded by breast cancer by about 100 times (3M vs. ~260M).

    Even more striking, Motor Neuron Disease funding outpaced suicide funding by almost 10 times (3M vs. ~23M, thanks in large part to the previously mentioned "ALS Ice Bucket Challenge"), while only accounting for about 7,000 deaths per year.

  • How Many Research Dollars Are Allocated For Mental Illness?

  • In 2015, Depression research received $390 million in funding, Anxiety Disorders $156 million and Schizophrenia $241 million.

    These seem like large numbers until you consider that mental illness impacts almost one in five Americans, with nearly 4% of Americans suffering from serious mental illness (defined as a condition that impedes day-to-day activities, such as going to work).

  • How Does Research Funding Allocated For Mental Illness Compare To That Which Is Allocated For Physical Illness?

  • The funding for mental illness research seems even more minuscule when compared to the funding and prevalence rates of Breast Cancer. For example, funding in 2015 for Breast Cancer approached 700 million, while Breast Cancer only impacts about 1-2% of the population or around 12% of all American women over the course of their lifetimes (a much smaller percentage of the population than mental illness).

    Note: This should in no way take away from the serious need for Breast Cancer research. I have personally lost family and friends to all forms of cancer, including breast cancer. I raise this comparison only to advocate for more funding and research for mental illness, or at least funding more relative to the number of individuals who are impacted across the U.S. and around the world.

  • Is A Lack Of Research Funding For Mental Health Dangerous?

  • This relative lack of fundraising and research dollars for Mental Illness is dangerous for several reasons. First, it highlights how huge numbers of Americans suffer from mental illness and addiction in silence and in the shadows. Think about it this way: Have you or anyone you know participated in a Breast Cancer walk or been at an event promoting the use of pink in honor of breast cancer month? If so, these efforts have raised attention and funding for the one of about eight women (in the U.S.) who is impacted in her lifetime.

    By contrast, have you or anyone you know participated in a walk or fundraiser for depression, anxiety disorders, suicide, addiction, schizophrenia or any other form of Mental Illness?

    Based on the number of individuals impacted by these two diseases, you should be at least twice as likely to have experienced a fundraiser for mental illness. Remember, one in four Americans suffer from Mental Illness, more than twice as many as Breast Cancer (12% of women).

  • Do More Deadly Diseases Get More Research Funding?

  • One hypothesis for the disparity could be that Breast Cancer's lethality is what drives the heightened attention and fundraising efforts. However, as mentioned previously, the numbers of Americans who die each year from suicide and breast cancer are nearly equal (~40,000 deaths per year).

  • What Does Research Funding Have To Do With Parity?

  • Another reason the lack of support and fundraising for Mental Illness is dangerous is because it reinforces an old mindset that does not afford parity between mental and physical illness. In other words, mental illness is less important and less worthy of funding and support than physical illness. Creating parity and increasing support for fundraising and research will likely decrease preventable deaths.

    For example, compare the number of deaths from Mental Illness (otherwise known as suicide) to those from ALS. About 20,000 Americans have ALS at any given time and in 2011 less than 7000 Americans died from all Motor Neuron Diseases combined (which include ALS).

    By contrast, almost six times as many individuals, about 40,000 Americans, died from suicide in 2011. Yet funding for Motor Neuron Diseases outpaced funding for suicide research by almost 10 times (22.9M vs.3.2M).

  • Can More Research Funding For Mental Health Save Lives?

  • By putting more money and spotlight on mental illness, we can better develop effective treatments and identify high risk groups and risk factors that could inevitably drive down suicide rates. There are some great mental health organizations that do fantastic, heroic and irreplaceable work.

    However, these statistics begin to uncover that they get much less attention and funding than those that raise money and awareness for physical health diseases.

    Final Thoughts
    By bringing Mental Illness out of the shadows and into the forefront of our thoughts and fundraising efforts, we will decrease the stigma associated with these diseases. Those who are impacted should have hope and not shame, treatment and not rejection. Those with depression or an anxiety disorder deserve the same support and hope that someone suffering from Breast Cancer is afforded.

    Adrian and Brian raised awareness, funding and decreased stigma for all of those suffering from mental illness as they trained and competed in a grueling Iron Man. Adrian and Brian were moved by the loss of Adrian's brother. However, their motivation to raise money and awareness stemmed from a desire to improve the condition of all those suffering from mental illness around the world. With nearly one in four Americans suffering from Mental Illness, their story is likely one you can relate to, and may even have experienced, personally.

    Read more about how Adrian and Brian tackled an Ironman course and mobilized their social network to raise nearly $17,000 for mental illness research here.

    Dr. Goldenberg is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and Addiction Psychiatry Specialist in Los Angeles, CA. He has written numerous articles about mental health and addiction topics. You can follow Dr. Goldenberg at and on Twitter: @docgoldenberg

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