Donation funds mental illness research

Herb Allison ’65 is not afraid to talk about his struggles with debilitating anxiety throughout high school and college. In fact, his personal experience with mental illness is one of the motivating factors behind his recent $3 million donation to the Yale School of Medicine.

The grant from his family’s foundation — The Allison Foundation — will fund the Psychiatry Research Scholars Program, an initiative that will provide $1 million per year for three years to facilitate clinical research in the Department of Psychiatry and the Yale Child Study Center. The program will fund three young researchers studying mental illness in children and young adults. Although the idea for the program had been discussed for over a year, the first round of funding was distributed in early September.

“This gift from Mr. Allison is a wonderful opportunity for the Child Study Center and the Department of Psychiatry to work together to enable young scientists in both departments to get their first start in research of illnesses that affect children and young adults,” said John Krystal MED ’84, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical School.

Krystal said that often the hardest part of research is getting initial data to sustain investigations, both to justify receiving funding from the government and to generate independent research grants. Allison’s donation money provides a “wonderful starting place” for the three clinical researchers, he added.

“It’s enough for the three researchers to get the start they need to move forward, and the way that it is flexible will ultimately have a big impact on the field that they work in,” Krystal said.

Psychiatry Research Scholar Tamara Vanderwal MED ’06, DIV ’08 said she is currently working on a project aiming to help very young children stay still while they are in the fMRI scanner. Doing so, she said, would lead to more accurate data collection. She added that she hopes to use EEG and fMRI technology together to better understand how the developing brain organizes itself during rest. After understanding more about these networks in normal development, Vanderwal said she hopes to turn her attention to disorders in child psychiatry.

“Mr. Allisons’s gift and vision for this program is, unsurprisingly, extremely strategic,” Vanderwal said.

“This launching program fills a major developmental gap for young investigators like myself, and puts us in the position to be competitive for the next stage of research funding that would otherwise be way out of reach.”

The other two researchers in the program are Thomas Fernandez MED ’05, who studies psychiatric genetics, and Christopher Pittenger MED ’94 GRD ’94, who studies Tourette disorder.

Allison said the idea for the program developed from a conversation with a classmate at their 45th college reunion. That classmate, a psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center, invited Allison to meet with Krystal.

Working with Dr. Matthew State GRD ’01, the Donald J. Cohen Professor and deputy chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry, Allison helped design a more holistic and comprehensive program to research these mental illnesses. The two wanted to integrate clinical practice and research and build ties between the Child Study Center, the Department of Psychiatry and other research areas, Allison said.

“Mr. Allison wanted to contribute so as to have a big impact here and in the field,” Krystal said, adding that Allison asked a lot of “hard questions” during the program development.

Allison said one of his goals in developing the program was to provide resources for young scholars to move in new directions, especially where funding may not be available early on. He added that he hopes this grant will help alleviate the stigma associated with these diseases.

“When I was at Yale, I suffered anxiety attacks that were debilitating,” Allison said. “I’d withdraw to my room, and sometimes they would last for up to 10 days. Back then it was hard to diagnose — I was told to just get over it. I was lucky and I did get over it, but many others don’t.”

Though psychiatric medicine has improved since his Yale days, Allison said it is important for those suffering to get help and for others to understand that mental illnesses are not character flaws but rather often have physical or environmental causes.

Allison said he hopes this research will lead to a great understanding of mental disorders in children and young adults, and will encourage those who need help to seek it.

“When I was in college, I was told one in four students would need psychiatric assistance,” Allison said. “Everyone seems super-confident, but many are suffering in silence. I want to get the message out there that there are ways of getting help, and there is no shame in getting help.”

Allison graduated with a B.A. in philosophy before spending four years in the Navy and obtaining a business degree from Stanford.

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