UHF is proud to recognize Stephen and Constance Lieber of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation for their visionary philanthropy to advance scientific research and treatment to improve the lives of those with mental illness.

Every now and then, a chance encounter can change the world. 

In 1986, Herbert Pardes, MD, then the head of Columbia University’s psychiatry department, organized a symposium on mental health at the university’s medical center. After the event, an unassuming couple approached him in the auditorium. They spoke in a humble, almost apologetic tone, and their request was a simple one: “We’d like to do something for mental illness.” 

The couple was Stephen and Constance Lieber, and little did Dr. Pardes know at the time, but this brief meeting would spur major advances in scientific research on mental illness and a transformation of the field. 

The Liebers had a daughter with schizophrenia and wanted to get involved to help other families facing mental illness. Steve Lieber had already had a successful Wall Street career, which included founding his own investment firm in 1971 and which would continue for decades. 

Dr. Pardes, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, introduced the Liebers to the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, now Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF). They joined the organization in 1987. Connie served as President for 18 years, and Steve was Chairman for 12 years until his death in March 2020. Dr. Pardes served as president of the BBRF’s Scientific Council, a role he still holds in addition to currently serving as the Executive Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Since 2012, BBRF has been led by president and CEO Jeffrey Borenstein, MD. 

The Liebers’ philanthropy, leadership, fundraising, and compassionate approach to patients turned BBRF into a powerhouse and, eventually, the world’s most prominent private funder of mental health research grants. Since 1987, the organization has awarded more than $408 million to fund more than 5,900 grants to more than 4,800 scientists of multiple disciplines all over the world. The vast majority of top scientific investigators studying the brain and behavior have received support from the Liebers at some point in time.

“They were lovely, sincere, intelligent, and selfless people who just wanted to help,” said Dr. Pardes. “They never sought any recognition. The Liebers were the gold standard for doing good for a big purpose.” 

One hallmark of their success in leading BBRF was their insistence that experts take the lead in research funding. “Connie and Steve agreed to a simple formula: the board will take care of advocacy and fundraising, and the scientific council will take care of generating nominations of the best research to be awarded,” Dr. Pardes says. 

Another top priority was encouraging young scientists to enter the field, and they supported promising researchers in the U.S. and throughout the world. Many groundbreaking careers in psychiatric research blossomed as a result. 

To provide recognition to noteworthy researchers and leading humanitarians that he felt was lacking, Steve Lieber created the Lieber Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Schizophrenia Research and the Pardes Humanitarian Prize for Mental Health. “Steve wanted the field to be as respected as other medical fields,” says Dr. Pardes. “He said, ‘How come there are Nobel Prizes for those working in all kinds of areas of medicine—what about mental health?’” 

The Liebers were also committed to offering solace and advice to families in need of help and found themselves in a position to interact with them directly. “I can’t tell you how many people I know over the years who’ve said to me that the first real help they received in dealing with the illness of their loved one was from Connie and Steve,” says Dr. Borenstein. 

In 2011, in partnership with the Maltz family, the Liebers created the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and the Maltz Research Laboratories at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus in Baltimore. They also founded the Lieber Recovery and Rehabilitation Clinic and the Lieber Center for Schizophrenia Research and Treatment at Columbia University. 

Connie Lieber died in 2016, and Steve died earlier this year. It is hard to overstate their impact. The Liebers’ philanthropy and guidance of BBRF launched thousands of careers in mental illness research, spurred leading scientists to make countless discoveries, and fostered a new level of awareness of mental illness that has helped lessen the stigma surrounding treatment. 

The field of psychiatric research owes much to Connie and Steve Lieber. UHF is proud to honor them with our 2020 Special Tribute for their extraordinary generosity, unwavering commitment, robust imagination, and tireless efforts to improve the lives of those with mental illness.