Leading global health and development bodies are launching a $10bn research fund to fight brain disease and mental illness — a huge and growing problem that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Healthy Brains Global Initiative (HBGI) aims to do for mental health what the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria has achieved in reducing the burden of infectious diseases.
Due to launch early next year, HBGI’s interim chief executive Brad Herbert — who helped to create the Global Fund — is tapping philanthropic foundations, companies, wealthy individuals and governments to raise the required funds. Funding sources are expected to include the International Finance Facility that Gavi, the international vaccines alliance, uses to finance its immunisation work.
“I commend HBGI for thinking creatively not only about new science but new funding strategies from bonds to direct investments in this transformational global fund,” said Mr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, one of the bodies endorsing the initiative.
HBGI’s backers point out that the $10bn they are seeking compares with direct and indirect costs of mental illness that already exceed $3tn a year and are projected to reach $6tn by 2030. Mental health, like infectious disease, has been a neglected field of research in comparison with cancer and heart disease.
Ed Whiting, director of strategy for Wellcome, the London-based research foundation, has been appointed to HBGI’s interim board. The coronavirus pandemic, which has increased rates of depression and anxiety in people of all ages and particularly the young, “adds to the need but also presents us with an opportunity to learn more about mental health”, Mr Whiting said.
Covid-19 was not creating a new mental health crisis but expanding an existing one, he said, “highlighting that we don’t have the resources and breadth of effective resources we need to deal with it”.
Victor Dzau, president of the US National Academy of Medicine, has been appointed co-chair of the interim board. “We all have a friend, parent, child, sibling, or loved ones with a mental illness,” Mr Dzau said, noting that 25 per cent of people worldwide experience mental illness.
HBGI says it aims to put “people with lived experience” of mental illness at the centre of its research programme by also using them to inform the type of studies that are undertaken and how they are carried out.
The other co-chair is Garen Staglin, a Californian entrepreneur and founder of the One Mind charity, who has been campaigning for mental health since his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia almost 30 years ago.
“People may think $10bn is a lot of money to raise and spend but, given the scale of the problem and the success we’re going to have, you can look at this as just a demonstration programme,” he said. “We could deploy $100bn.”