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The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health announced Thursday that its foundation has received a record $100-million donation from an anonymous donor, monies that will be dedicated to research on everything from the causes of mental illness to how to improve access to care.

A gift of this magnitude is impressive in itself. We tend to forget the important role philanthropy plays in funding health research and, increasingly, health services.

But it is doubly noteworthy because it dramatically underscores a significant cultural shift, where it is as legitimate – and socially acceptable – for a philanthropist to embrace mental health as a cause as it is cancer or heart disease.

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After all, the ultra-modern hospital and research labs of CAMH started out as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, a place to be avoided and not even talked about. That sort of stigma is hard to shake off.

Mental illnesses and their sufferers have long been feared, not embraced as a noble cause and a promising area of research.

The $100-million bequest goes into what the CAMH Foundation is calling the Discovery Fund, and used "to attract talent, explore big ideas, support young scientists and leverage data to expose the mysteries of the brain."

That is a delightfully eclectic list in a world where donations too often are self-aggrandizing and come with many strings attached.

Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos, physician-in-chief and a clinical scientist at CAMH, said the $100-million comes with no restrictions, and will be used to fund a broad range of research, including basic scientific research on the causes of mental illness, the search for new treatments, clinical research on how to improve current treatments, and developing new models of care.

"There are a lot of gaps in knowledge and a lot of gaps in care, and we're going to address many of them," she said.

In a news release, the anonymous donor said: "I have seen the devastating impact of mental illness on individuals and their families; I want to provide support to the next generation of researchers and scientists to pursue the research that will directly transform care. In order to enable quantum leaps forward, this gift will also support high-risk, high-reward research."

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This is a powerful endorsement of the Canadian research enterprise and in young researchers in particular. At a time when public investment in health research is stagnant, it's the kind of bold, innovative gesture we should be seeing from the federal government, not just from private donors.

Donors in the health field, whether they give $100 or $100-million, tend to have one principal motivation: They have a loved one who was affected by a condition and they want solutions.

About 15 per cent of charitable donations in Canada go to health-related charities. Only a fraction of those go to mental health, but those donors tend to be particularly passionate, and often desperate to see a family member helped.

Mental health has always been the orphan of medicare. Starved of funds because of stigma and hopelessness, donations have tended to go to where there is the most crying need: community groups trying to plug the gaps in care. That use of funds is in stark contrast to conditions such as cancer, where billions get pumped into research into new treatments and the search for cures.

In recent years, there has been a growing public recognition of the breadth and depth of mental illness in society. Not only are many people – about one in five – affected by mental health conditions such as depression, but a small minority have severe, and sometimes intractable conditions that leave them homeless, imprisoned and frequent users of the health system, and fuels the epidemic of suicide.

Along with the increased awareness, helped through initiatives such as Bell Let's Talk – which, to date, has contributed $86.5-million to mental health charities – and the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, there have been tremendous advances in neuroscience and a better understanding of the complex interplay of genetics, social environment and triggers such as trauma, and how they cause mental illness.

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This promising science, as much as anything, has attracted the attention of philanthropists. The Campbell family – grandchildren of media baron Roy Thomson – donated $30-million to CAMH for the creation of the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, and long-time child health advocate Margaret McCain contributed $10-million to the Margaret Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health.

Now, a nine-figure donation provides yet another vote of confidence in the Canadian research enterprise.

"There is no question this makes a powerful statement to other donors and government," said Darrell Louise Gregersen president and CEO of the CAMH Foundation. "This is a demonstration of faith in the power of research, and a belief in the future," she said.

In a word, it is about hope – something we don't see enough of in the mental health field.

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