It’s Time to Fund Children’s Mental Health

Thursday, April 15, 2021

It’s Time to Fund Children’s Mental Health
By: Joan Steinberg, Global Head of Philanthropy, President of the Morgan Stanley Foundation, and CEO of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health Advisory Board

In February of 2020, depression and anxiety among young people were at a two-decade high, according to the CDC. A crisis was already unfolding and adequate support was lacking, particularly in vulnerable communities.

Against this backdrop, I led the launch of Morgan Stanley’s Alliance for Children’s Mental Health, which works to address and raise awareness of the growing mental health crisis facing children and teens. At the time, we had no idea how prescient our focus would become. 

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. 

COVID-19 and its repercussions have taken a huge toll on children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. With exponential increases in depression and anxiety among children, it is clear that we need collective philanthropic efforts to support our next generation.  

Why children’s mental health?

There are many reasons why I choose to take on this important issue, and amidst the pandemic, these have become more convincing than ever.

  • The problem is daunting: An estimated 17 million children in the U.S. alone have or have had a mental health disorder, and nearly two-thirds of them do not receive help. And worse, less than 15% of children experiencing poverty who need mental healthcare receive services – and even fewer complete treatment. 
  • The human toll is high: Depression is one of the largest contributors globally to life years lost due to premature death. In the U.S., suicide is sadly the second-leading cause of death among young people.   
  • Implications are far-reaching: The economic cost of mental health disorders in Americans under 24 is about $250 billion annually. For individuals, untreated mental illness can have multiplying effects on their academic success, productivity, physical health and developmental trajectory. Improving children’s mental health can also help address social inequity and prevent the criminalization of youth, especially in vulnerable communities.     
  • The sector is vastly underfunded: Despite affecting 20% of the population, philanthropic giving for mental health is only 1.3% of the total funding – and the portion dedicated to children is even lower.  With few exceptions, corporate givers are not engaged on the topic.
  • The situation is worsening: COVID-19 has evolved into a full-on mental health crisis, as our kids have experienced academic strain from school closures, psychological pain due to families losing loved ones and employment, and the frustration of paused social lives and cultural activities. Coupled with social injustice issues, the need for further investment in children’s mental health has only increased. 
  • Innovation is encouraging: This is a fast-growing space, seeing more promising innovations and evidence-based solutions everywhere. For instance, our Alliance nonprofit partners quickly pivoted to virtual programming and telehealth services at the start of the pandemic, allowing for support to expand far beyond in-person reach.   

A collective philanthropic response

Given the sheer scale and complexity of the children’s mental health crisis, I know one company can’t tackle this on our own. 

That’s why we launched the Alliance – to combine the resources of the Morgan Stanley Foundation with the knowledge and experience of our nonprofit member organizations (the Jed Foundation, the Child Mind Institute and the Steve Fund are among them), to deliver catalytic philanthropy and tangible results, particularly in underserved communities. I’m very proud that in our first year, we benefited millions of students, parents and teachers, but it’s going to take many more funders to join in this effort to create a tipping point in promoting positive mental health and leading children and families toward care. 

How funders can help

Here are four ways that my fellow funders can do:

  • Review your funding approach and seek ways to further your mission holistically. For me, this led to the formation of the Alliance, an intentional expansion of the Morgan Stanley Foundation’s mission to give children the healthy start they need in life to succeed. There are so many potential intersections with children’s mental health from physical health and education, to workplace capacity, social equity and criminal justice reform, just to name a few.   
  • Raise your own awareness by learning more about children’s mental health issues and the far-reaching impacts. I think it’s fair to say the statistics will shock you – they certainly did for me.
  • Support innovation in this space. We just launched our inaugural Innovation Awards to provide an open platform for funders to identify and support game-changing mental health care solutions for children and young people. Reach out to learn more, and stay tuned for our event in November where shortlisted nonprofits will be showcased.
  • Advocate within your organizations for more attention on children’s mental health issues and mental health challenges overall. Fight stigma, talk openly and look for expert resources. 

We’re now at a critical inflection point in helping our next generation emerge from this trying time even stronger. I hope that the philanthropic sector will join forces and step up our commitment to the mental wellbeing of our young people. 

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