Three years since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health conditions and substance use disorders are still on an upward trend. The reasons for the steady increase are many, and the mental illness burden is causing an unwanted ripple effect. More than 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasizing the critical need for action.  

Philanthropists have stepped up during and since the pandemic was declared, funding mental health programs and even providing laptops and broadband so that more people could access virtual mental health care. While these resources remain vital — particularly for underserved communities — there are many ways collaborative philanthropic investment can help ease the long-term, collective burden.  

One example of collaborative investment is Breakthrough Discoveries for Thriving with Bipolar Disorder (BD2), which in 2022 became the first funder collective committed to accelerating science in bipolar disorder. The vision is to turn discovery into action to provide better clinical care and improved quality of life for those with bipolar disorder, and for their loved ones.  

BD2 offers a model others can lean on and learn from. Because by investing in basic science to research the brain and the causes of other mental health conditions, each investment will contribute to better diagnostics and treatment for all. 

The Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP) is committed to being a resource and a partner for those looking to use philanthropic resources to advance progress in mental health research and care. CSP’s open-access guides offer a path for new and experienced donors with a vision for a better mental health care system. 

  • Moonshots for Youth Mental Health and Well-Being: Exploration of Big Bets and Bold Goals: The COVID-19 pandemic amplified mental health issues in adults, but it also imposed a tremendous impact on youth. From drastic changes in the education system to isolation during formative years, the issue posed a critical need to implement a plan. The Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Hopelab came together to identify four "moonshots" that could dramatically improve mental health and well-being in youth. They include: 
  1. Increased education around emotional well-being and prevention during early years to normalize, destigmatize, and treat mental health with the same attention and urgency as physical health; 
  2. Ensuring multiple "open doors" for access to emotional support and mental health care across ALL health and social systems; 
  3. Ensuring every young person has access to a mental health professional who understands their unique culture context; and, 
  4. Implementing objective and evidence-based well-being practices grounded in research done in partnership with youth.  
  • In 2020 amid peak social isolation, CSP published a guide for philanthropists to support students, faculty, and higher education to tackle challenges that surfaced during the transition from in-person to virtual education. Mental health challenges for college students spiked during this time, especially for low-income and underserved populations. CSP’s guide on Philanthropic Opportunities for Well-Being in Higher Education proposes focused investments to help staff and students improve their mental health, necessary for their academic and professional success.    
  • Not only is research stalled in specific fields of mental health, but the entire mental health system lacks equitable access to care, leaving many people struggling untreated and isolated. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the need for care in a system already failing to keep up with the demand. How can philanthropy take action to address these urgent needs? CSP’s guide on Philanthropic Action for a Better Mental Health System focuses on short and long-term investments to improve the overall ecosystem of America’s mental health care system.  

Philanthropy can be the light in an often-dark tunnel when discussing the complexity of the mental health crisis. The resources here show how philanthropy can be deployed strategically and drive transformational change in the short-term, and create a path to long-term, positive change.