The University of Oregon is the recipient of a recent $425 million grant from the Ballmer Group. Joshua Rainey Photography/SHUTTERSTOCK

In his State of the Union speech this week, President Joe Biden said something that must have been encouraging to mental health professionals and advocates: He made a pitch for adoption of his proposed strategy to address the nation’s mental health needs more effectively. He noted, in particular, the youth mental health crisis that’s been exacerbated by factors like the COVID pandemic that disrupted schooling and everyday life, as well as technology use that’s increasingly suspected of undermining kids’ well-being.

But the most important thing is that the president talked about the importance of addressing mental health during one of his highest-profile political events. That’s an indicator of the extent to which this national crisis has taken center stage—a shift that we’re also seeing in philanthropy, following many years of neglect. Case in point: With fortuitous (or perhaps intentional) timing, the University of Oregon this week announced a dizzying $425 million gift from Connie and Steve Ballmer, co-founders of the Ballmer Group.

It’s the latest in a string of encouraging indicators that philanthropy is stepping up on the issue—including a $20 million investment from Morgan Stanley, Dallas billionaire Lyda Hill’s $10 million prize to transform Texas’ treatment of depression, and a recent $55 million gift for depression research from the estate of Audrey Steele Burnand. And yet, a $425 million gift ushers mental health funding into the philanthropic big leagues—a level of giving we’ve seen rarely, if ever, despite the pervasiveness of the problem.

The grant establishes the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health, to be based in Portland. The university describes the institute as a “new national model” for behavioral and mental healthcare that unites university training and research programs with public schools and families, and other community support programs that can deliver help and treatments to K-12 students. The University of Oregon says it will also propose new degree and certificate programs to expand the workforce of professionals trained to address children’s mental and behavioral health needs.

As the nation takes steps to address the unmet mental health needs of Americans, the Ballmers’ gift underscores the central role of higher education—in large part by training the new professionals needed to provide the care. As we’ve noted in previous articles, the Ballmer Group has been a longtime supporter of mental and behavioral health—including with $38 million in grants last summer to build up the mental health workforce in Washington State.

The Ballmer Group website turns up about a dozen grants for mental-health-related causes, ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the millions, spread among public schools and community programs, with the largest going to the University of Washington School of Social Work to train an expanding workforce. The Ballmers’ philanthropic priority is economic upward mobility for children and families, giving nationally, but with geographic emphasis on Washington State, Los Angeles County, and southeast Michigan.

Other states and private funders have also taken steps to address the worsening crisis in children’s mental and behavioral health as the pandemic moves into its third year. The California Department of Education, for example, recently announced funding from the nonprofit health plan Blue Shield of California to expand support for students, with Blue Shield investing $1 million. But youth mental health needs were serious long before COVID: In 2019, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne, long-time funders of children’s healthcare, made a $15 million gift to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland to expand programs in the Bay Area and, like the Ballmers’ recent giving, to address the acute shortage of mental health services for kids and adolescents by training new professionals.

The University of Oregon says its new institute will create undergraduate degree and certificate programs (subject to state approval) that will produce a new level of behavioral health practitioners. The Ballmer Institute will also design programs to deliver “science-based early detection, prevention and treatment strategies” to Oregon kids and families.

The institute will use its focus on real-world clinical services to accelerate the discovery and spread of new technologies and medical research. It will also provide scholarships backed by a $100 million endowment to graduate the growing workforce. Currently, the institute hopes to graduate at least 200 new bachelor’s degree holders in mental-health-related fields. The certificate programs are designed to enable mid-career professionals to work in communities to address mental and behavioral health needs.

Even if Congress enacts Biden’s strategy to address mental health, which proposes billions more in public funding, all states are in need of more philanthropic support for programs and workforce development like the Ballmers’ work in Oregon. Absent any timely progress from Congress, the need for transformative philanthropy here will only continue—and perhaps grow even more dire.

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