January 07, 2016

By Ken Duckworth, M.D.

Ted Stanley passed away on Jan. 4 at the age of 85. You may not have heard of him before, but due to his dedication to scientific research, the world of our grandchildren is likely to be very different for treatment and recovery from mental illness.

A successful businessman, Ted donated more than $1.2 billion to research on bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Like many people, Ted’s commitment was rooted in personal experience. His son, Jon, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while he was in college. Luckily, Jon was able to recover, but his experience was a turning point for Ted’s investment in the future—to spare others from similar or worse experiences.

At times when government and industry investment in research around mental illness have been uncertain or have declined—and other diseases such as cancer or heart disease have overshadowed mental health—Ted stood fast to his cause. In 1989, he established one of the keystones of his commitment, the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which includes a “brain bank” of donated tissue for advanced research.  

In 2014, Ted committed an unprecedented $650 million to the Broad Institute, a collaborative research center involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. I was privileged to participate in a panel at the center at the time, discussing Ted’s vision. The event coincided with a major study of genetics and schizophrenia, published in Nature, an international journal of scientific research, that identified 108 genomes linked to schizophrenia—83 of which had not been previously identified.

There was tremendous energy in the room during the discussion and a profound sense of hope, as if leading researchers and psychiatrists were emerging from a black hole—and could see a light in the distance. Ted’s contribution was in fuelling that energy. He helped set ambitious, crucial goals for coming years, including identifying a complete list of genes that play a role in all psychiatric disorders and the biological pathways through which they act and developing ways to control pathways that can lead to effective drug therapies and treatment options.

Today, some cancer treatments are informed by genetic differences between different tumors. We need the same kind of personalized approach in treating mental illness. But it won’t come easy. It will require new ways of thinking and deliberate, methodical steps. Little of it would be happening without Ted’s commitment, vision and selfless generosity.

So, thank you, Ted. You will be missed, but we will keep your faith alive and keep moving forward.

Ken Duckworth, M.D., is NAMI's Medical Director. 

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