[This post originally appeared on Mindful Philanthropy]
Every year, millions of Americans donate their time and resources to help issues that are close to their heart. For many, this includes mental health. Unfortunately, the need for funding in this space has only grown: prior to COVID-19, 1 in 5 Americans lived with a mental health condition, and now, it’s 2 in 5.
Mental health and addiction also play a central role in every major social issue, from academic achievement to economic mobility and overall equality. No matter what cause you care about, making a gift in this area can be a smart investment with lasting impact.
We know it can be overwhelming to know when and how to give, with so many options to consider—especially for mental health causes. At Mindful Philanthropy, our goal is to increase funding for, and access to, mental health services. Every day, we advise donors on how to make the most social impact with their dollars. Based on our decades of experience in this field, we compiled a list of seven best practices for generosity:
- Invest in prevention and early intervention opportunities, especially through support for young people and their families.
Research shows that 50% of mental illness begins by age 14. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has had the biggest impact on youth mental health, including increases in youth anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and emergency room visits. Schools in particular can provide children and families with the resources they need for social and emotional learning, mental health education, life skills, and more. Look for mental health education programs that decrease stigma and increase understanding of symptoms of mental disorders. Or, support organizations that push for policies that increase the number of qualified providers in schools, increase provider reimbursement, ensure insurance coverage of life skills programs, and expand school-based mental health policies. Consider giving to “two generation” programs outside of the school setting too, such as home visiting programs, that support not only children, but their parents and/or caregivers as well. No matter which strategy you choose, a gift in prevention and early intervention can help make a lifetime of difference for youth.
- Donate to programs that consider the needs of the whole person, not only their diagnosis. For example, those that include career goals and relationships.
Those who live with mental health conditions and/or substance use disorders are much more than their diagnosis, so holistic support is key. In fact, most of our health is actually decided by factors outside of the healthcare system—such as housing, work, family life, and social connections. Consider giving to programs that provide career or relationship counseling, which can help individuals shape their lives in a way that supports healthy outcomes. Or, you can help remove practical barriers to medical care, such as the cost of transportation or childcare, by funding solutions that expand service hours to accommodate working parents, provide outreach to those experiencing homelessness, or provide residential programming with family-based therapy and trauma-informed childcare.
- Contribute to accessible, community-based solutions for those most in need or underserved.
Veterans, the LGBTQ+ community, youth in foster care, individuals in jail, and those experiencing homelessness all experience mental illness at greater incidence than the overall population. You can help by funding programs that take into account cultural or legal factors when providing services, such as by providing information in native languages for immigrants and refugees, incorporating traditional and spiritual healers, and educating clinicians on issues of race. Programs that decrease stigma and increase social connectedness can also break down barriers faced by groups such as the LGBTQ+ community or those experiencing homelessness. Or, look for initiatives that increase the focus on mental health in existing volunteer/service programs. These programs can equip young professionals to deploy low-intensity, evidence-based, non-clinical psychological approaches on themselves or with others. Rather than starting from scratch, this strategy builds upon existing partnerships to serve high-need and hard-to-reach groups in our communities.
- Support mental health and substance use disorders in tandem, as many interventions for one are also successful in reducing the other.
Approximately half of the over 20 million people with a substance use disorder in the United States also have a “co-occurring” mental health disorder. Addressing both disorders in a coordinated way is the key to successful treatment. Look for programs that address both disorders in tandem, or support systems-level changes that encourage the integration of mental health and addiction treatment. You can also choose to support the expanded use of treatment models such as the Collaborative Care Model (CoCM), a systemic approach to the treatment of mental health and addiction in primary care settings that involves collaboration between primary care physicians, care managers, and psychiatrists. CoCM is backed by over 70 randomized controlled trials over 15 years—proving that collaboration in the medical system is key to successful mental health and addiction treatment.
- Get to know an organization’s theory of change, evidence base, and willingness to learn and adapt before investing.
A clear theory of change provides both an organization and its funders with a roadmap to successful outcomes. Understanding the evidence base behind programing—or lack thereof—is also crucial to smart funding decisions. Asking a few questions can go a long way. Is the program well-studied or a completely new approach? Does it expand on existing data by serving a new population, or by taking a novel approach that differs from previous programs? Do they plan to collect and analyze their program data? If not, how can philanthropic funding help? And how does the program learn from those it serves, as well as the field at large? What happens when things don’t go according to plan? Understanding the answers to these questions and more can help guide smart philanthropic decisions.
- Make sure that organizations understand and include the perspective of those they serve—how does an organization integrate the voice of youth or community members in their decision-making?
Collecting feedback from those you serve and using it to improve is imperative for any organization that seeks to make a social impact. Look for organizations whose boards and staff leadership include youth, people with lived experience in mental health and addiction, and/or community members. If they do not have in-house expertise, does the organization perhaps partner with others in the field who bring that perspective to the table? How does the organization elevate those voices and incorporate their perspective into their programming? Or, if they currently do not practice this, what is their plan to do so? Again, a few key questions can go a long way in your due diligence.
- Support organizational leaders who have a proven track record, consistent outcomes, reputation, and respect in their fields.
Even the most evidence-based programs can fall apart without the right leader at the helm. Knowing the track record and reputation of an organization’s leaders is a key ingredient to effective giving. What are their strengths, and what are they working to improve? What have they achieved to date, either at this organization or in previous roles? What do others in the field have to say about their accomplishments? Feeling confident in the leadership of the organization you choose to support is just as important as the evidence and theory of change behind their programs.
Supporting mental health is a great way to practice generosity this giving season. We hope these best practices are useful to ensure your generosity has the greatest impact.
- Health in Mind: A Philanthropic Guide for Mental Health and Addiction (The Center for High Impact Philanthropy)
- Subscribe to Mindful Philanthropy’s newsletter for insights around mental health, well-being, and other impactful opportunities
This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.