Photo: Andrey_Popov/shutterstock
Photo: Andrey_Popov/shutterstock

Here at Inside Philanthropy, we’ve been covering funders’ responses to the challenges arising from COVID-19 since early last year. As many sector professionals have pointed out, the pandemic didn’t only present new problems—it highlighted longstanding ones, such as disparities in healthcare, that have often been under-addressed by grantmakers public and private.

Mental health is high on the list of such underserved topics. There are any number of statistics that illustrate just how lopsided philanthropic giving is next to the size of the problem. A commonly reported estimate by Candid is that 1.3% of philanthropic giving goes to mental health, even though these issues affect 20% of the population at some point, creating healthcare burdens that are among the world’s largest. And within mental health as a grantmaking category, children’s mental health has been particularly neglected.

Here’s another sobering stat: two-thirds of children suffering with a mental health disorder in the United States do not receive help. And those issues can and do go on to affect other aspects of their lives, including education, family and overall health.

A corporate funder steps up

These are some of the facts that have fueled relevant work by the Morgan Stanley Foundation, which formed the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health in February of last year with a $20 million investment. Of course, then came COVID.

“We intended to launch grantmaking last year because we thought children’s mental health was at a crisis point,” said Joan Steinberg, president of the Morgan Stanley Foundation and CEO of the Alliance for Children’s Mental Health Advisory Board. “But we had no idea what was coming. Within a month of us going live, it became an even bigger crisis.”

The pandemic only worsened mental health concerns for many kids. Internet use skyrocketed, prompting worries about overuse and cyberbullying. Other kids come from families with no access to broadband—a concern of a different kind. In the immediate term, Morgan Stanley pivoted to focus on how the pandemic was threatening kids’ mental health. That work included a crisis survey to better understand how the pandemic was affecting kids’ health and a grant to the Child Mind Institute tailored to help parents of kids in more vulnerable populations determine if their children were struggling with mental health issues.

And when society returns to something like its pre-pandemic norm, with kids going back to the classroom, mental health experts forecast new problems for some children who will have trouble leaving the comfort of home and reintegrating with their school communities.

When Morgan Stanley launched the alliance last year, initial funding went to seven nonprofit partners in the U.S. and abroad. U.S.-based recipients include the Jed Foundation, Child Mind Institute, the Steve Fund and New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. Outside the U.S., funds went to the Scottish Association of Mental Health, Mind HK in Hong Kong and Place2Be in the U.K.

To expand its funding support under the initiative, Morgan Stanley recently announced its Alliance for Children’s Mental Health Innovation Awards. These awards will go to nonprofits working in innovative ways to address mental health issues like stress, anxiety, depression and disruptive behaviors. Selected nonprofits will “have opportunities to be awarded with a grant of up to $100,000,” and to receive consultation and training services. Applications for the 2021 round are due on July 2.

Both a symptom and a cause

In addition to its grants and awards, a central goal of the alliance—perhaps its most important goal—is to encourage other donors in the private sector to include children’s mental health in their work, particularly those that already support youth-related issues such as education. And in that area, Steinberg and others say giving still needs to increase.

“You don’t have to change your portfolio to be all mental health funding, but children’s mental health affects all the other things you’re funding,” said Steinberg. “Maybe you weren’t funding mental health, but you may want to pull it in now.” In this sense, Morgan Stanley is embracing the idea of upstream (and downstream) impact that has grown influential in health philanthropy. The pandemic has underscored the usefulness of that approach. Rather than thinking of mental health as a niche or speciality topic, it may make better sense to see it as both a symptom and cause of wider social ills.

Potential funders should also know that mental health disorders don’t present uniformly intractable challenges. Many children can be helped in significant ways if they receive care. “There are treatments that are successful, that can give kids a great shot, so a little more investment can make a big difference,” Steinberg said.

According to Steinberg, one encouraging sign is that companies are taking more steps to accommodate the mental health needs of their own employees. That awareness could ripple out to younger members of society who face the same sorts of struggles, prompting a rise in corporate giving commitments for children’s mental health. “A lot of corporations are doing better jobs recognizing needs with their own employees, so I’m optimistic that part of that will include the whole family and acknowledge what’s happening with kids,” she said.