Not long after COVID-19 forced a lockdown on nearly the entire planet, an unintended consequence of the quest to stem the spread of the disease started to unfold: A worldwide surge in mental health challenges.

Two months into the pandemic, there are increased reports of depression, disruptions to sleep, anxiety and more coming from people of all ages, from all over the world. With the ramifications of the pandemic spanning so many different areas of our collective lives, the numbers will probably continue to rise.

Young people who went from high-touch, high-connection K-12 and college environments were sent home to learn online through the rest of the school year, at least. Lack of access to good computers or adequate broadband has made learning even more difficult for some, which compounds the stress.

The elderly, many of whom have suffered the worst of COVID-19's health consequences, are isolated from friends and family and the social interaction they need for good mental health. And then there is everyone else. Those who’ve been suddenly unemployed, or working from home and juggling childcare, work, and online learning. The health workforce who live the fallout of the pandemic on the health system every single day. Those suffering food insecurityPeople of color, who are experiencing the health and economic effects at disproportionate levels. The list, unfortunately, goes on and on.

How can philanthropy give smarter? What can be done to help people get the care they need, and how can philanthropy help to build back a better mental health care system?

Dr. Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, notes that while scientists have studied the impact of community-level trauma on mental health, this is a different crisis than anything ever seen before, as it is affecting the health, economic ,and social well-being of broad swaths of the population. “Telehealth is making a difference,” he says, “But we need a health care system that’s effective at treating mental illness.”

Crisis Text Line is a free service. In the last month, their demand for services has gone up 40% and the demographics of people reaching out is broadening. CEO Nancy Lublin says that stigma is a major barrier to seeking treatment.

“For anyone to access mental health care, they have to get over the idea that it’s this terrible thing to ask for help," she said. "We want to make it easy. Many share things with us that they’ve never shared with anyone else.”

While demand for telehealth services has gone up, NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis, who founded the Jerome Bettis Bus Stops Here Foundation noted that computers and lack of broadband, particularly for people who are already poor, are a major barrier to treatment.

“About a week ago, we got a call from someone whose students didn’t have access to computers,” he said. “In 24 hours, we were able to get enough money to get 60 computers. But we also saw we had to bridge a digital divide so we can be a stop-gap in providing that technology.”

How Philanthropy Can Help 
There are a number of ways in which philanthropy can make a big difference. High-impact donors have the opportunity to look at the situation at hand, see the gaps that need to be filled, and take concerted steps that change the way we prevent and treat mental illness for the long-term.

  1. Increasing access to quality mental health care both during a time of social distancing and once things return to a semblance of normal will be needed to ensure that a temporary mental health crisis remains just that – temporary. We already know that the right treatment at the right time makes all the difference. Right now, there aren’t enough providers to meet demand, and some lack access to broadband and digital devices for telehealth services.
  2. Donors should be thinking about how to combat the stressors associated with the global crisis such as isolation, and high unemployment, and partner with community-based organizations to ease the burden.
  3. Stigma remains a major barrier for people living with mental health challenges. Donors can support and/or engage in advocacy and the campaigns that de-stigmatize mental health and encourage individuals and families to seek treatment.
  4. Finally, beyond this crisis, our analysis shows that mental health research is dramatically underfunded compared to the burden of the disease. Philanthropists can play a major role in supporting and promoting the brain research needed to understand, identify, and treat mental illnesses.

While the mental health crisis looks very different across communities and demographics, it is encouraging that the mental health consequences of the pandemic are being discussed openly in the media, and in work and school settings in ways like never before. With the targeted addition of strategic, high-impact philanthropy, working together, there is a real opportunity to improve the system for the long-term.

Insights for this article were shared in a recent Milken Institute webinar, “Addressing Mental Health Challenges and Access.” To watch the discussion in full, click here