Few causes within healthcare require innovative solutions more than mental health, a broad and complex universe of conditions that reach into nearly every home, business and institution in American life. Many mental health issues are hard to treat, and sometimes can only be managed rather than cured—and that’s for the people who have fantastic insurance or the ability to pay out of pocket for doctors and therapists. Millions lack access to adequate mental healthcare; addiction and suicide strike across all ages and remain at tragically high levels; law enforcement and the justice system are simply not built to address mental health needs.
Yet for a variety of reasons, few philanthropic funders have addressed mental health with the kind of innovative ideas and experimental thinking that’s needed and expected of philanthropy. (See Ken Zimmerman’s recent guest post urging funders to step up their game dramatically in this area.) That’s where Well Being Trust, a relatively young entity that we haven’t covered previously, has staked out its mission: “to transform the health of the nation and improve well-being for everyone.”
The foundation was established in 2016 by Providence St. Joseph Health as an independent 501(c)(3) with an initial endowment of $100 million, plus an additional $30 million to be invested in California. (And no, it’s not a conversion foundation.) Put in charge as chief executive was Tyler Norris, who was previously vice president for total health at Kaiser Permanente.
A Focus on Policy
The seed funding that launched the Well Being Trust isn’t the kind of money that can build a shiny new edifice of national care on its own, so the organization seeks to drive change at the policy level. Its goal is to rethink the big picture of mental healthcare, and to provide a coherent vision or framework that can guide philanthropic, public and healthcare business investments across the whole of mental healthcare needs.
Mental healthcare in the U.S. is broken, both locally and nationally, according to Benjamin F. Miller, PsyD, chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust. That blunts the effectiveness of any private or public money that’s invested in mental health. “It doesn’t matter how much money is put into something that’s broken—it still fundamentally stays broken,” he says. Rather than maintain an insufficient approach to mental healthcare through continued grants, policymakers must adopt an organizing vision to change the way mental health and addiction health issues are addressed. “We need a north star, a framework to align investments in service to a structural fix.”
The Well Being Trust has outlined its framework in a policy guide, “Healing the Nation: Advancing Mental Health and Addiction Policy,” available on its website.
“Accomplishing this goal requires a comprehensive framework that sees mental health as existing on a continuum that begins in community and extends into healthcare,” the trust writes. “Issues like social isolation, loneliness, hopelessness, trauma and shame intersect. These are exacerbated by a lack of economic opportunity, toxic stress, stigma, and a blend of opportunity-limiting cultural and environmental factors in our communities that ultimately thwart human flourishing.”
The Well Being Trust says its framework offers federal policy guidelines to address areas like existing health systems that people already use, as well as judicial, education systems, the workplace and employment—what it calls a “whole community” approach—and a category of specific focus populations.
Mental health can no longer be considered a separate issue from physical health. Earlier this decade, researchers noted that life expectancy in the U.S., which for many decades had been increasing due to medical advances, has started to decline. This is primarily due to death from drugs, alcohol and suicide, notes Well Being Trust. But these “deaths of despair” comprise just one of the statistics that indicate an even broader degree of despair throughout the country, which is dragging down overall well-being, work and economic productivity, and increasing public and private healthcare burdens.