The lack of adequate care and empathy for people suffering from mental illness is a monumental concern in the United States. But due to the complexity of the problem and the systems that have stigmatized, criminalized, and dehumanized people with mental illness throughout the nation’s history, finding sustainable solutions is difficult, yet urgently needed work. Melissa Beck, executive director of the Sozosei Foundation, is one of the people fighting for positive change.     

Melissa Beck spoke with NPQ about her life experiences as well as her professional journey from serving as a criminal defense attorney to leading the Sozosei Foundation, which is working to decriminalize mental illness.

She shared her unique perspective on the intersections between law, justice, perceptions of mental illness, and mental healthcare. Crucially, Beck also shared her insights on how the philanthropic sector can serve as better drivers of systemic change and champions of equity in mental health and healthcare from a more holistic perspective.

TMG: What do you see as some of the major problems that we’re facing in terms of mental healthcare and how should philanthropy address mental health? 

MB: One of the things that’s always been interesting to me about philanthropy is the really strong desire for…a quick fix, something that will have a more immediate impact. But when you’re dealing with human beings, there is no quick fix. Human beings are complex, systems are complex. I think that philanthropy requires a level of patience, fortitude, and deep listening.

One of the things we’ve tried to do at Sozosei Foundation is not wait. When I took the job in June, we had our first strategic plan by August, because my feeling was that accessing mental healthcare is very hard in this country. 

It’s easy to get out there and start working to help ensure access. But it’s also very complex because the barriers to access have very, very deep roots. And until we address the root problems, philanthropy can’t do its job. So, for us as a foundation, we work across communications, grantmaking, and convenings because we believe we need to execute on all three of those fronts to get at deep, historic, systemic toxicity, and begin addressing it through large policy shifts that question the very structure of systems. Why is Medicaid like it is? Why do we have a federal block grant for healthcare? Why is our access to healthcare determined by what state we live in? These are our taxpayer dollars. 

And we want to have a conversation about abundance. If you [always] sit in a place of scarcity, it’s exhausting. You have to imagine abundance. You have to imagine equitable structures. You have to say, we are going to move forward. We can overcome these challenges and barriers. And so we try to function as abundant future thinkers. How can we be architects, or how can we help folks to draw blueprints for a future that we really want to build together? So, we moved very quickly to establish our first strategy, and I think came quickly to the realization that mental illness has been criminalized because we have no mental healthcare system. 

Read the full article about decriminalizing mental illness by Tonie Marie Gordon and Melissa Beck at Nonprofit Quarterly .