Why Philanthropy Needs to Center on Mental Health

The ongoing COVID pandemic brought greater awareness to the state of mental and emotional health among the global population. More specifically, it revealed the need to restructure mental healthcare. Some one billion people around the world are plagued by suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, and several other mental and behavioral disorders, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, 80 percent lack sufficient care, as less than two percent of healthcare funding and less than one percent of philanthropic giving goes toward this issue.

And as the WHO noted in a 2021 piece on its website:

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment and financial instability, disruption to education, social isolation, intimate partner and family violence, fear of life-threatening disease, and sudden loss of loved ones, have become increasingly common. All of these are risk factors for mental health conditions and behavioral problems such as depression and substance use disorders.

Because of that, and because of the fact that eight of every 10 people plagued by poor mental health are in developing countries, nearly 200 nations gathered together to update the Mental Health Comprehensive Action Plan, at the behest of the World Health Assembly.

But more is needed. Philanthropic organizations in particular need to step up to the plate, but must negotiate several barriers in order to do so.

A 2021 report, launched by NM Impact, United for Global Mental Health and Arabella Advisors, listed several barriers to philanthropic giving, along with potential solutions:

Inability to grasp the sector’s needs: This has resulted from either a difficulty in grasping terminology or a failure to understand the scope of the problem, and the report suggests aligning with the International Alliance of Global Mental Health Research Funders, or the Global Mental Health Action Network.
Stigma: Discussing such issues was endemic, the study concluded, to certain age groups or certain cultures. This too could be remedied by increased education and awareness.
Metrics: Many would-be givers claim that it’s difficult to measure mental-health outcomes, but the survey’s authors point out that the WHO’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan (2021–2030) summarizes the data rather well.
Global Need: Givers, especially in developed countries, tended to confine their contributions to their own nations, as opposed to acting globally. But the study emphasizes the need to widen their focus.
Philanthropic Awareness

Placing a renewed emphasis on mental-health initiatives may not resolve these important issues overnight, but it will definitely be a great start. Philanthropic efforts are the first and possibly the most important step toward permanent change. Improving the awareness around individual mental health changes one life, which in turn changes another, until the effects are far reaching. One person can make a big difference within a community, and ultimately across the world.

Ken Zimmerman, founder and co-director of the Mental Health Strategic Impact Initiative (S2i), succinctly explained the most pressing gap, in an August 2021 piece for the website Inside Philanthropy. Zimmerman cited the way the pandemic “exposed the nation’s pre-existing tattered approach to mental health.” He also called for public funds to be used to correct the state of mental health care approaches and facilities. Sustainable change must begin at widespread grass roots efforts and continue building momentum in a trickle up approach.

Volunteers, professional fundraisers, and philanthropists must come together to address these challenges head on and make a change to improve our views on treating the mentally ill. Bonus side effects may include successful natural experiments, influential new leadership, and raised awareness about mental health issues that lead to meaningful policy change. Ultimately, none of these advancements can occur without the necessary funding to put the initiatives into motion. Funding sources are urgently needed to turn these dreams into a reality.

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