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How philanthropy can ease a growing mental health crisis in the U.S.

By Asia Hadley
May 27, 2020

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Can the U.S. health system handle the mental health effects resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic? Experts think not. Despite increased funding for fiscal year 2020 across various health agencies and robust mental health provisions in the COVID-19 stimulus aid package, community-based services and social supports are on the brink of closing or are already overwhelmed and unable to keep pace with the growing need for mental health treatment.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 46.6 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States live with a mental illness. These illnesses vary in form and degree yet represent 18.9 percent of all U.S. adults. As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, we will need to keep the spotlight on how people are coping during the pandemic and its aftermath.

The coronavirus has exacerbated the number of people experiencing mental health challenges. A survey from the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index found that 28 percent of Americans are experiencing a decline in their mental health, and 34 percent reported worsening emotional well-being. Researchers attribute these declines to day-to-day negative impacts and unintended consequences of policies initiated to flatten the curve.

Data trends from the Kaiser Family Foundation also found that the coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in the U.S. New regulations and measures set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to save lives are taking a mental and sometimes physical toll on increasing numbers of people.

Intimate partners and children are particularly at risk of experiencing violence and trauma while sheltering in place, as home may not be safe. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers resources to help families and communities address intimate partner violence and child abuse health concerns.

The coronavirus is revealing what we have known all along: there are gaping holes in our health care and labor systems that adversely affect women and people of color, groups that work disproportionally in low-wage jobs. Women often have the additional responsibility of finding adequate childcare during this crisis, which contributes to stress and uncertainty. If history is any indication, even as businesses reopen, women will need to make the tough decision between returning to work or staying at home to protect their own health, tend to children, care for elderly loved ones, or a combination of these three.

With time and data we have become aware of how the pandemic is killing a disproportionate share of people of color across the United States. According to a May 4 article in the Nation, Black people accounted for all COVID-19 related deaths in my hometown of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Blacks tend to have more underlying health conditions due to unequal access to medical care and systematic and structural inequality. Add mental health and substance use disorders to the mix, and you have a recipe  not only for increased risk for COVID-19 but also for incarceration and homelessness.

Now more than ever, our communities need effective cross sector collaboration between government, the business community, and the social sector to increase equitable access to critical mental health services for people who need them most. Time is of essence.

The president’s FY 2021 budget proposal recommends reducing the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) budget to $5.7 billion dollars, a $142 million dollar cut. This agency funds numerous programs vital to children and their families for mental health, substance use, suicide prevention, and maternal health.

What can philanthropy do to mitigate the burgeoning mental health crisis?

  • Support cross sector collaborations for health and well-being. We need organizations from many sectors to work cooperatively to address systems for health and well-being. Grantmakers can support these collaborative efforts through funding and acting as a convener to discuss pertinent issues related to mental health care.
  • Increase general operating support for organizations providing community-based services. Currently, private foundations fund less than 2 percent of total mental health funding in the U.S. Funders can increase their giving to include support for mental health.
  • Invest in mental health funding in communities of color. Organizations run by people of color or serving people of color could use additional support instead of cutbacks, which are all too common when crisis strikes.
  • Report your data to Candid for greater transparency and to help track Coronavirus funding. Submit your data to Candid and join the Glasspockets movement to help bring greater transparency to the world of Philanthropy.

The United States is a resilient country, and we will weather COVID-19 together. Although this pandemic is ravaging the economy and people’s physical and mental health, there is still a bright side. Communities are coming together while social distancing to help one another. We have an opportunity to transform how we experience the workplace and how we educate the next generation of students. We can more intentionally decide what we will add back into our lives from extracurricular activities to conferences and convenings.

Regardless of how dire circumstances get due to COVID-19, we can follow Mr. Rogers’s advice to “look for the helpers.” They are all around us. It is my hope that one is reflected in the mirror. Together, we must care for our mental health. It’s a matter of life or health. Let’s choose both.

To learn more about philanthropy's response to the pandemic, take advantage of up-to-date resources, tools, webinars, and more on Candid’s coronavirus pop-up webpage.

Tags: Mental health; Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Equity