Life throws change at all stages. Think back to childhood years, and maybe it was a house move, or changing from middle school to high school and then if you were fortunate enough, college. Then, it was time to get a job and adjust to whole new set of life circumstances and environments. Those are the expected, mostly happy changes. Throw in a curveball or two, for example a disruptive weather event, the loss of a job or a loved one, or a health emergency and the stream of constant changes, daily pressures and added stressors can become too much to bear.
Most people will experience periods that challenge their mental health. Yet for many who are going through times when they need extra mental health support, there are massive roadblocks standing in the way of getting the help they need. Stigma persists, and quite simply, there has been a society-wide failure to recognize that mental wellness is as crucial to all aspects of life as physical health is.
The sad reality is that America was under extreme stress even before the pandemic began. 10% of all adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. 47 million other people reported struggling with mental illness. Add in other causes, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction, or eating disorders, and the number is far higher. This state of affairs must be addressed not with a proverbial band-aid approach, but with an intentional, intersectional lens that recognizes the root causes of poor mental health, and addresses the problems at their source.
The pandemic brought the mental health crisis into plain view, and in the philanthropic world, donors like Melinda Gates, CSP partners Cindy and Rob Citrone, and many others have stepped up to address the acute needs at hand. What’s also needed to build back better for the long term is for all sectors to come together and reimagine a world where quality care is available, affordable, and accessible to all people who need it.
The advantage of strategic philanthropy is that this unique asset class can be deployed to meet multiple needs at the same time. Mental health is a good example of an intersectional issue.
First, it is helpful—in fact, it is crucial—to remember that mental health and physical health are very closely linked. For instance, people living with chronic illnesses are at higher risk for depression, and those with depression are at higher risk for other medical conditions. Yet our current healthcare system is fragmented, putting physical and mental health in two distinct silos that actually lead to poorer overall health outcomes. Philanthropy can help reimagine this broken approach, and even reset it by advocating for and funding integrated care models that promote information sharing among a care team, connect patients to the right specialists, and provide universal mental health screening, etc.
Next, education is another area where the intersectionality of mental health plays an outsized role, especially in the success of young people and students. Roughly half of all people experiencing mental health conditions developed symptoms by age 14, and 75 percent by age 24, making schools important partners. With support, schools can help students develop resilience skills, and coordinate with community and healthcare resources. Funding can also help junior and high schools train faculty and staff to look for warning signs, provide school-based or school-linked mental health services, and also offer innovative wellness tools, technology, and programming. At the collegiate level, many university presidents have identified student mental well-being as a priority but lack the resources to appropriately support it. If you are giving to your alma mater, consider directing your support to expanding resources, such as increasing counseling capacity, offering wellness tools through new technology (e.g., Nod, You @ College) or on-campus programming that builds skills, systems, and awareness to support student mental health (e.g., Radical Health, Active Minds, and Jed Foundation). Students of color can experience higher rates of anxiety and poorer mental health outcomes because of racism, so consider intentional support for these populations, for example, through The Steve Fund.
And finally, we know there is a very strong link between human wellness and the environment. As our planetary health degrades, do does our mental health. Climate-related disasters cause depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, and just the worry about climate change and the state of the environment has led to crippling worry or eco-anxiety.
Also, studies show that increased air pollution increases the likelihood of having mental illness. While the planet (and its degradation) can be deleterious, the planet can also be restorative. There is a building body of evidence showing how access to nature can be particularly helpful in promoting well-being and mental health, and that children who have access to green space have lower risk of developing mental illness even once they reach adulthood. But it must be noted that vulnerable populations and people of color are the ones already bearing the brunt of climate-related disasters, living in areas with higher rates of pollution, and having the least access to green space.
What’s philanthropy to do? Well, for long-term impact, donors can focus on addressing the root causes (i.e., climate change), while in the near-term supporting mental health services to aid those impacted by natural disasters. There is an ongoing need to fund the development of green space in communities that currently lack it so mental health benefits are maximized.
This is just the start. It has been long established that mental health and criminal justice, homelessness, financial security and other social causes are deeply intertwined. Philanthropic funding intentionally applied to any of these areas can have a measurable impact on community mental health.
It is encouraging that mental health is at last being discussed in the open. The isolation and constant disruption and stress of the pandemic made the conversation necessary and urgent. It’s been said thousands of times this last year: “Be mindful of your mental health,” or “It’s ok to not be ok,” and “Make a mental wellness plan.” The rub here however is that it’s not enough to put the burden squarely on the individual. Solving the crisis will take a concerted, collaborative, intersectional effort to reimagine and take concrete steps toward bringing America’s collective well-being to where it should be.