Actress, Producer & Mental Health Advocate Dakota Johnson Honored at 17th Annual HOPE Luncheon Seminar

Hope for Depression Research Foundation (HDRF), the leading non-profit dedicated solely to advanced depression research, held its 17th Annual HOPE Luncheon Seminar at The Plaza Hotel on the topic of psychological resilience, featuring top medical experts and actor Dakota Johnson as the celebrity honoree.

The event, entitled “Resilience: Emerging Stronger from Life’s Greatest Challenges,” drew more than 300 attendees and raised over $700,000 for life-saving mental health research.

The day included a major announcement of new discoveries by HDRF’s acclaimed Depression Task Force, a collaboration of top neuroscientists who are pooling expertise and data to find urgently needed new treatments and diagnostics for depression.

The event also featured a heartfelt award ceremony, where acclaimed actress and producer Dakota Johnson accepted the 2023 HOPE Award for Depression Advocacy. Other awardees were Sage Therapeutics, which received the HOPE Corporate Visionary Award; and Michael Dudgeon, who received the HOPE Community Award for his commitment to funding advanced depression research.

Among the guests were Brooke Shields, a former HOPE Award recipient (2009), and her daughter Grier Henchy, who as a Teen Race of Hope Ambassador is continuing in her mother’s advocacy footsteps.

Master of Ceremonies, Chuck Scarborough began by welcoming guests and then introduced keynote speaker, Dr. Dennis Charney, Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and President for Academic Affairs for the Mount Sinai Health System.

Dr. Dennis Charney has made significant contributions to the understanding of human anxiety and depression, and is the author of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges  with Steven Southwick and Jonathan DePierro.

The book is based on extensive research with trauma survivors, such as prisoners of war who were subject to torture in Vietnam.  In his remarks, Charney shared ways to build resilience which he covers in the book, including: developing optimism, finding a supportive network, embracing a moral compass, creating positive statements about oneself, and attending to physical well-being.

In addition, Dr. Charney shared his own personal story when he had to put resilience factors to the test after being shot by a former faculty member at Mount Sinai.  He spent weeks recovering in the I.C.U.

“Realistic optimism is key – you need to know what you are facing and not be Pollyanna about it,” he said. “But also have faith that you will prevail.”

He added, “It’s important to accept what happened without blaming yourself, and then work to get stronger.”

Charney added that finding inspiration in music was critical for him.  He listened almost non-stop to Bruce Springsteen’s “Stronger than the Rest.”

In conclusion, Charney touched on the resilience of New York City to bounce back after the 9/11 attack and Hurricane Sandy.  He said he believes New York is a resilient city because of its immigrant population and heritage of survival and grit.

Another guest featured in the program was Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University and a member of HDRF’s Depression Task Force.  Dzirasa gave brief remarks on how the study of depression can specifically benefit from machine learning techniques.

“The brain has over 200 billion cells and by understanding their electrical patterns, we can find new diagnostics and treatments for mental illness,” he said.  “Artificial intelligence allows us to analyze billions of electrical signals at once and find coherent patterns.”

HDRF Founder and Chair Audrey Gruss took the stage to speak about the exciting progress of the acclaimed HDRF Depression Task Force.

“When I formed HDRF, my vision was to create a think tank to defeat depression, where some of the greatest neuroscientists on the planet could collaborate in a way that breaks the traditional mold of academic research,” Gruss said.  “The field was stuck, so we hoped that by working together, we would provide real results faster.”

To unveil major research results, Gruss then introduced Dr. Eric Nestler, Chair of the HDRF Depression Task Force and Director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai.   Nestler announced that the DTF’s research had identified 20 promising genetic targets for developing new antidepressants.  All of these gene targets were narrowed down from a field of over 20,000 human genes over the past ten years, and have been extensively validated for their role in depression.  The 20 new targets are now ready to go to proof of concept clinical trials.

HDRF Executive Director Louisa Benton then took the podium to discuss HDRF’s community outreach and education efforts. She highlighted HDRF’s Race of Hope 5K in Palm Beach and Southampton, as well as the Teen Race of Hope in NYC in May, and several mental health symposiums throughout the year for the general public.

Mike Dudgeon accepted the 2023 Hope Community Award for his unwavering commitment to mental health research and support for HDRF.  In his poignant remarks, Dudgeon said that the impetus for funding depression research was the death by suicide of his 20-year-old son in 2020.  He hoped to find new cures for severe depression that shatters lives and families.

Sage Therapeutics, Inc. a biopharmaceutical company on a mission to deliver potentially life-changing brain health medicines, received the 2023 HOPE Corporate Visionary Award. Earlier this year, Sage introduced a breakthrough new treatment for postpartum depression to the market, the first and only oral treatment option for women specifically with Post Partum Depression.

Sage Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Mike Quirk said, “We are here to celebrate the power and importance of neuroscience research in transforming the lives of people living with mental illness.”

Audrey Gruss then presented Dakota Johnson with the HOPE Award for Depression Advocacy.  

“We are honoring Dakota because she has spoken candidly and openly in the media about her experience with depression and anxiety since being a teenager, “said Gruss.  “This kind of candor and sharing is part of the answer to the complex crisis of depression.”

In her remarks, Dakota Johnson moved the audience with her authenticity and humor.  She opened by quipping that she was honored to receive the award for best depressed person. After the audience’s laughter died down, she said she was inspired by the work of the Depression Task Force to defeat depression, because her first-hand knowledge of depression is that there are no immediate answers or cures.

She spoke about the value of therapy and medication in her journey with depression.  In addition, she practices transcendental meditation every day, and finds great relief in deep tissue massage, breath work, yoga, and swimming in natural water.

“I fully support needing the assistance of more urgent help, like the temporary use of SSRIs and EMDR or brain spotting, which I find to be incredibly amazing. As long as you are not harming yourself or others, whatever helps you, helps you.”

She concluded: “Removing the stigma of anxiety and depressive disorders and the means to help them is essential. We are in too much trouble as a human race to feel further isolated by the brain chemistry and complexities of the mind that we are born with, or the life experiences that we may not have chosen given the state of the world.   If we help each other understand that caring for our mental health is essential, perhaps that will turn practicing self-love and self-compassion into a vital part of living. And then perhaps that will radiate compassion and love for each other and the Other, and then the world we live in will also become a vital part of living.”

This year’s Event Co-Chairs included Susan Gutfreund, Maru Hagerty, Gillian Hearst, Kim Heirston, Tania Higgins, Eleanora Kennedy, Kristen Maltese Krusen, Susan R. McCaw, Kitty & Bill McKnight, Peter S. Paine III, Barbara & Randall Smith, and Scott Snyder.

HDRF also acknowledges our generous sponsors!