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Close relationship between attorney and his client creates a major resource for psychiatric care and research

Sidney BaerA Professional Role, a Personal Mission When George B. Handran began working as Sidney R. Baer’s personal attorney in January 1981, Mr. Handran had no way of knowing that his reclusive and difficult new client would change the direction of his own life. But the relationship dramatically altered Mr. Handran’s path, and he now considers himself a full-time philanthropist because of it.  

Battle with Chronic Illness
By the time the two men met, Mr. Baer had been struggling with schizophrenia for nearly 40 years. He was the scion of a prominent Midwestern family who owned a department store chain. Mr. Baer dropped out of Yale University in his freshman year after his first psychotic break which was only identified as schizophrenia decades later. Typical of the 1940s, Mr. Baer was not viewed as someone with a mental illness, but rather as a failure. Mr. Handran says his client never got over that stigma. “Sidney was the first one in his family who didn’t finish Yale [University], and it became a major issue with his parents,” Mr. Handran recalls. “Even in the last year of his life, at age 84, I remember him saying, ‘You understand, don’t you, that I would have finished Yale if I hadn’t gotten ill?’ That’s how much of an issue it remained for him throughout his entire life.” Mr. Baer continued to struggle, spending time in hospitals and in an assisted living facility in Connecticut, in between stints of living on his own in Boston and St. Louis. During intervals of improved functioning, he was active in several successful business ventures and was an astute investor. During the last four years of his life, he enjoyed sustained good health, thanks to a confirmed diagnosis of schizophrenia and a new medication.

Doing something innovative

"Mental health is seriously and chronically underfunded. I have to be sure that the extraordinary resources that Sidney contributed are allocated to programs that can do something innovative for patients and achieve results.” — George B. Handran, Esq., co-trustee of the Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation

Creating an Enduring Resource
Despite his illness, Mr. Baer was consistently generous with his wealth and always clear about his intention to leave his fortune to charity. However, it was Mr. Handran who suggested to Mr. Baer that rather than giving it all away, he could make an enduring impact by creating a foundation to help others suffering from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Mr. Baer agreed, and established the Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation in 1999, three years before his death. Mr. Handran and U.S. Trust in St. Louis are the Foundation’s co-trustees. Consistent with Mr. Baer’s spirit of both expeditious action and a quest for long-term solutions, the Foundation strives to alleviate immediate suffering and to advance knowledge about schizophrenia and depression through academic medical research. Direct grants for clinical care and public education are made to programs in Mr. Baer’s birth and adopted cities: St. Louis, Boston and New York. Support for research is provided through the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD). The Foundation has supported multiple psychiatry initiatives at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The First Episode: A Crucial Time for Treatment
Foremost among these initiatives is the First Episode and Early Psychosis Clinic of the MGH Schizophrenia Clinical and Research Program, directed by Donald C. Goff, MD. According to Dr. Goff, the two to three years after a first psychotic episode, which often occurs during the transition from adolescence to adulthood, constitute the most critical time in a patient’s treatment.

“That’s when we stabilize patients with medication and a form of ‘talk therapy’ called cognitive behavioral therapy, while we work to integrate them back into school or work environments,” says Dr. Goff. “The conventional view of schizophrenia was that it just got worse and worse, but now there’s a growing understanding that the illness may not always be progressive and that in fact some medications may promote healing of the brain and recovery of brain function. So clinical services need to be tailored to optimize that potential.”

The clinic’s multi-disciplinary team provides a comprehensive psychological, medical and neuropsychological assessment of any patient who displays psychotic symptoms. In the last 12 months, some 60 patients from around the country, most of them aged 14 to 30 years, came to Mass General for first-time evaluations or for second opinions at the First Episode and Early Psychosis Clinic. Patients who live in the immediate area often receive ongoing care.

Funding for Prevention and Education
With Baer Foundation support, Dr. Goff and colleagues have also been able to expand preventive services for people with schizophrenia that insurers often will not cover, like smoking cessation and weight-loss interventions, in an effort to address the disproportionate incidence of diabetes and heart disease that affect patients with psychotic disorders. The Foundation has also made a sustained commitment to patient and family education through sponsorship of MGH’s Schizophrenia Education Day, held each October, and of two annual seminars for the public in other areas of psychiatry, such as depression, autism, cognition and aging and addiction.

HandranAlthough Mr. Handran maintains a law practice, he visits every program that the Foundation funds, serving on the NARSAD board, advocating for employment opportunities through the Massachusetts Clubhouse Coalition and the International Committee for Clubhouse Development and speaking to lay audiences. He views his newfound mission as a testament to the courage and vision of his late client who never received effective medications until he was 70 years old. “Mental health is seriously and chronically underfunded. I have to be sure that the precious resources that Sidney contributed are allocated to programs that can do something innovative for patients and achieve results.”

George B. Handran, Esq., co-trustee of the Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation with the clinical leadership of the MGH First Episode and Early Psychosis Program, which was initiated by a grant from the Foundation. From left: Oliver Freudenreich, MD, director; Mr. Handran; Daphne Holt, MD, PhD, associate director; and Corinne Cather, PhD, director of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.