Cindy Goff/shutterstock
Cindy Goff/shutterstock

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a vast number of downstream impacts beyond the illness and fatalities specific to the virus itself. Among the greatest of these concerns is mental health, and it’s worrisome enough that public health experts are calling it a secondary epidemic. As Inside Philanthropy has noted, mental health is a greatly underfunded need throughout society, accounting for both public and private funding sources. The situation has always been uniquely tough for LGBTQ+ adolescents and adolescents of color—and COVID-19 has only raised new barriers for these groups.

To support and encourage the development of new ways to ensure that these young people can get the services they need, this week saw the launch of the Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health. The fund’s goal is to move fast—before the COVID pandemic interferes further with nonprofits and their clients, particularly those groups who face barriers to care even in the best of times.

“Providers serving adolescents are struggling, and we want to respond quickly,” said Solomé Tibebu, director of the new fund. “We designed the grant application to be as little burden as possible for them, to get them funds with a turnaround of a few weeks.”

How has COVID-19 changed the playing field? Before the virus, for example, many young people received mental health services at their schools. But school closures have made accessing such services impossible in most of the country, and the current alternatives are not always right for everyone. “Some mental health care providers offer video therapy, but if the student is not out yet to their family, that could be a problem,” Tibebu said.

Tech-based or other innovative solutions to problems like the issue of privacy are the sort of ideas Upswing wants to encourage and support, said Tibebu. “It might be a technology solution, or it might be a policy change,” she said. “We are flexible about whatever tactic a potential grantee may have developed.”

Tibebu is a behavioral health strategist and investor with a focus on mental health, equity and access. Her background includes founding a mental health tech startup; she also founded and ran the nonprofit

The $10 million in seed funding to launch the Upswing Fund came from Pivotal Ventures, the investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates to advance social progress in the U.S. The fund will continue to seek additional support from interested potential donors.

Closely involved in the development and ongoing administration of the Upswing Fund will be Panorama Global, a sort of consulting and action organization that works hands-on to solve pressing global problems through experience and expertise in forging new partnerships and relationships, helping to establish collaborative funds like Upswing, and spreading scalable solutions. Panorama founder and CEO Gabrielle Fitzgerald previously directed the Ebola program at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and was director of Global Program Advocacy at the Gates Foundation.

“Upswing’s origin is very much in response to COVID,” said Fitzgerald. In addition to rapid response, surge capacity grants to help frontline mental health nonprofits continue to operate fully; despite the special demands of the pandemic era, the fund will also seek to give out systems enabler grants that will focus on the development of new and resilient approaches to adolescent mental health services nationwide.

“COVID created a lot of new needs, but it also exposed needs that have been around for a long time, and exacerbated them,” said Fitzgerald.

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