Giving Hope

Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter LeAnn Rimes will be honored at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation’s annual luncheon at The Plaza on November 6. Each year, the foundation honors a celebrity who has been open about their struggle with depression and its related mood disorders, to help raise awareness. “People relate to celebrities,” says the organization’s founder, Audrey Gruss. “Every celebrity that speaks out about it really represents millions of people who are still afraid to talk about depression or feel that there’s a stigma surrounding it, and who don’t understand that it’s actually a medical illness that affects the entire body. It’s a mind-and-body medical illness and you can get treatment for it.”

Each year, the luncheon, which has become a highlight of New York’s social calendar, focuses on a certain aspect of depression. This year, the 13th, Dr. Maria Oquendo, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania medical school, will talk about depression and anxiety, because they often occur concurrently. She will explain how doctors diagnose the condition, as well as the latest treatments. Also honored will be Dr. Husseini Manji, global head of neuroscience at a division of Johnson & Johnson, one of Hope for Depression’s corporate sponsors. “Dr. Manji is at the forefront of neuroscience in this area,” says Gruss. He has developed a ketamine-based therapy, recognized by the FDA as a breakthrough, that has swiftly alleviated depressive symptoms in clinical trials.

The Depression Task Force

The foundation’s goals are to find a medical test to determine what kind of depression a patient has, as well as to develop new and better treatments, improve prevention, and to ultimately find a cure. To accomplish this, Hope for Depression has established a groundbreaking Depression Task Force, a collaborative effort among medial facilities to share their research in real time at the Hope Database Center at the University of Michigan. It’s a new paradigm for doing scientific research, Gruss says, because normally research is done separately by different universities and organizations, and only shared once it is complete. And it has borne fruit: Animals with low levels of a substance called LAC were depressed, those with higher levels were not, and now clinical studies of the substance in humans are in progress. The hope is that the research leads to the first-ever blood test to determine whether a person is depressed.

Tests are also underway to develop a completely different category of antidepressant, which have remained unchanged since 1985, when Prozac was first approved. “Fifty percent of those who struggle with depression do not respond to the existing anti-depressants, and 50 percent of the people who have depression or related mood disorders do not seek medical help,” says Gruss. “Those two statistics alone were staggering to me.”

Audrey Gruss with Anderson Cooper

She founded the organization because her mother—whose name was Hope—struggled with depression for years. Gruss, who holds a degree in biology, did some digging and found that although depression is among the most prevalent of illnesses, the field was underfunded by the government. Active in several other philanthropic organizations, Gruss previously had a career in business, working for J.P. Stevens, Revlon, and Elizabeth Arden, and later running her own international marketing company. Her scientific training and business background has informed her approach to everything she does. “I learned inductive and deductive reasoning, and I apply that to almost any problem that I approach.”