America is facing a psychological crisis. Philanthropy can help solve this problem

With one in five adults in the US suffering from a mental illness, this problem affects millions of families across the country. However, the lack of mental health resources and access to quality care remains a problem in communities across the country. As the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, we continue to learn how it has exacerbated our country’s already deteriorating mental health situation.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its latest survey of high-risk behavior among young people, which reported “increasing mental health problems, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behavior” among young people. According to the survey, teenage girls fared worse than boys: “Nearly one in three (30%) seriously considered attempting suicide — an increase of nearly 60% from a decade ago.”

However, solutions to this growing problem are complicated. There are different types and severities of diseases that need to be treated in different ways. Depending on where you live, the need for services can far outweigh the number of trained mental health professionals available, especially in rural areas. And while government agencies are trying to address the lack of mental health resources, research and access to health care, there is no way government can solve this problem.

This should come as no surprise as our federal government was never built to deal with complex and personal challenges of this nature. More than 60 years after President John F. Kennedy launched a community mental health center program, it is now considered a failure. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, which is a strong advocate for the severely mentally ill and better public policies to support them, the program “has failed to provide care for the sickest patients discharged from state hospitals.” Instead, the centers “focused on individuals with less serious problems,” leaving large sections of the population suffering and without vital support.



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Fortunately, Americans have a secret weapon in fighting this battle: private philanthropy. Philanthropy has historically played a life-saving role in the medical field, from the eradication of polio to the more recent development of the COVID-19 vaccine. And today, philanthropy supports numerous nonprofit organizations that help people with mental illness, advance important research and train psychologists who can provide quality care.

One organization making great strides in early intervention and a national leader in grief and trauma counseling for children and adolescents is the Hackett Center for Mental Health. The Dallas-based Hackett Center’s inaugural initiative was created to help heal communities traumatized by Hurricane Harvey. Since then, the center has advanced a number of regional mental health initiatives, mostly focused on children, young people and families – such as helping children cope with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another vulnerable demographic that continually struggles with mental health issues are our country’s veterans. According to the Wounded Warrior Project, “One in three veterans is living with post-traumatic stress disorder” and “One in three veterans also feels they are not receiving the psychological support they need.”

After Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus learned of the problems with the Veterans Health Administration’s care for some veterans, he decided to get involved. Today, the Marcus Foundation annually helps care for up to 20,000 veterans diagnosed with conditions such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress by working with local hospitals to create a mental health support network. For example, its innovative SHARE Military Initiative rehabilitation program, based in Atlanta, has gained national notoriety for the education, care and support it provides to veterans and military personnel—at no cost to them.

Mental health problems also contribute to other challenges such as poverty and homelessness. Studies consistently show that 25 to 30% of the homeless population struggles with serious mental illness. Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, who treated homeless patients with serious mental illnesses in Washington, DC for 15 years, argued that the decision to close public psychiatric hospitals left many of them without adequate care.

Fuller founded the Treatment Advocacy Center in 1998 to remove barriers to timely and effective treatment for mental illness by advocating improved state-level treatment laws. Today, the center also publishes evidence-based research on the consequences of untreated serious mental illness, provides training for mental health professionals, and educates the public about serious mental illness.

The lack of access to quality mental health care is indeed a crisis in this country, but solutions exist. Public education, reducing stigma, supporting mental health research, and engaging families and faith communities in solutions are all ways we can help address this crisis — and private philanthropy is at the forefront in supporting them.

Christie Herrera is interim president and CEO of Philanthropy Roundtable. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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