The daily updates to staggering death tolls have become a signature of the COVID-19 pandemic, raising our collective anxiety levels. So has loneliness, a byproduct of shelter-in-place orders that have 47% of Americans reporting negative mental health effects. Half of the people experiencing job losses and lost income—which have long been linked to increased levels of depression, anxiety and suicide—report mental health issues caused by worry and stress. Phones are ringing off the hooks at mental health hotlines from New York to California.
Nine weeks into the crisis, America’s mental health is bumping up against unprecedented trauma, raising red flags on increased depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
Risks are especially high for more vulnerable parts of the population like low-income people, those with pre-existing mental health issues, people of color, frontline workers and children who’ve seen classrooms and family members erased from their lives.
The issue takes both human and economic tolls. According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. But don’t expect the U.S. government to run to the rescue: The $2 trillion stimulus package passed in March only allocated $425 million for mental health and substance abuse programs.
Philanthropy has also been historically disconnected from funding mental health issues, a relatively small area of giving. The last time the national psyche was so bruised, on 9/11, mental health interventions accounted for only 1.2% of overall funding. That makes this an important time for philanthropy to build bridges to the incoming wounded, following the lead of these four funders:
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF)
One of the world’s leading private global philanthropies, SNF has invested $3 billion in building public-private collaborations with nonprofits in 126 countries since its founding by Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos more than two decades ago. In ordinary times, the organization funds arts and culture, education, health and sports, and social welfare.
In early April, SNF announced a $100 million Global Relief Initiative to combat the effects of COVID-19. Later the same month, it reported its first round of relief grants, which included $5.9 million to organizations in the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. In addition to grants supporting food insecurity and emergency relief for artists, SNF committed $1.5 million to supporting comprehensive mental health interventions for vulnerable populations, including seniors, children and frontline workers.
The foundation created two partnerships to support seniors, one with Service Program for Older People, to provide remote mental health services, and the other with the Fund for Public Health in New York City, to ensure regular welfare checks and essential home services. Children are getting help through New Alternatives for Children with funding directed at mental health programming for kids with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health diagnoses—as well as their families. And frontline workers are receiving access to COVID-19 resources on managing symptoms and patient communications through a partnership with the Center to Advance Palliative Care, and self-isolation accommodations through the American Cancer Society.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy focused solely on health, works to create an inclusive culture of quality care for all Americans. Mental health grants are regularly part of its Healthy Communities program, which lifts barriers in health and opportunity areas like nutrition, well-paying jobs and quality schools.
RWJF’s $50 million response to the pandemic directed $5 million to its home state of New Jersey, which has been particularly hard hit. Within that, it made mental health a priority with a $200,000 investment in the Mental Health Association in New Jersey for unrestricted general operating support of its ongoing work providing remote counseling services and advocating for mental wellness policies.
That support is all of a piece with other mental wellness funding when disaster strikes, including a $350,000 grant to the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands last year to provide mental health support in public schools following Hurricane Dorian.
The foundation is also elevating voices from communities of color on the subject of COVID-19 and mental health. In a recent blog post, Senior Advisor to the President Dwayne Proctor profiled Yolo Akili Robinson, founder and executive director of the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM)—and a recipient of the RWJF Award for Health Equity. Robinson covered important issues like the disparity of treatment in a community facing persistent systemic racism, the mental strains of being part of a cohort that’s dying at disproportionately high rates, and the fear of being profiled by police while wearing a face mask.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP)
CDP launched the CDP COVID-19 Response Fund in March, with the goal of supporting containment, response and recovery activities for hard-hit populations and responders. Its work has attracted nearly 50 donors, representing a wide range of industries and funds. As of May 13, the fund has invested more than $7 million in supporting communities that are most vulnerable to the physical, mental and economic impacts of the pandemic, including low-income households, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees.
Among its first commitments was $250,000 to the National Alliance on Mental illness (NAMI) to expand information on topics from managing anxiety and social isolation to accessing healthcare and medications. The grant will also connect sufferers with a helpline that regularly counsels tens of thousands, and expand NAMI network programming and activities.
The New York Life Foundation
Since 2015, the New York Life Foundation has invested $50 million in helping children handle grief and loss, after survey data showed that 92% of educators thought the practice was missing in schools. The interventions they’ve developed have become tools for the times, as the CDC warns of an increase in mental health issues for the 30 million children and adolescents who’ve lost essential school structures and services.
Maria Collins, vice president of the New York Life Foundation, says the program aims to “find gaps and fill them,” providing resources for entire school communities, including educators, parents, school psychiatrists and school nurses. Virus-specific resources include virtual programming like an “ask the expert” Q & A on talking with children about COVID-19; resources for school communities developed by a partnership between the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and the Coalition to Support Grieving Students; and a booklet on coping with change and loss that’s available in multiple languages.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that carers provide coping methods to help children find positive ways to express feelings of fear and sadness. To that end, the foundation created a book called “The Golden Sweater,” a one-minute film, and a discussion guide to help children navigate grief. These tools are free, and for each download, the foundation is donating $1 to its four primary bereavement partners, up to $175,000. Collins says the resources are intended to build resiliency and to show kids that they’re not alone.
Daniel H. Gillison, Jr., chief executive officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, echoed the sentiment recently, saying, “Now, more than ever, it’s important to remember that there is no health without mental health. During these difficult times, we encourage you to take care of yourselves and check in on loved ones. You are not alone, and we will get through this together.”