This article was published on Inside Philanthropy on July 7, 2021. 
By Barbra Ricci

It has been a year since Inside Philanthropy published Ken Zimmerman’s compelling case for why “Mental Health Needs to Be a Top Priority for Philanthropy.” As we observe National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, we pause to consider how philanthropy can most effectively invest to correct the inequities in prevention and access to quality, affordable care for mental health and addiction conditions among communities of color.

While early analysis appears to indicate a much-needed increase both in giving for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and mental health causes over the last several months, it is unclear how much of that funding considers the mental health and addiction needs of BIPOC communities specifically.

Yet, as we know, compromised well-being not only results from, but perpetuates, the systemic racial and ethnic inequities that the philanthropic community must boldly confront. Funders who prioritize supporting community development, youth, education or general health, for example, could achieve greater long-term outcomes when intentionally creating an overlay investment strategy that includes mental health and addiction.

Needs are great, yet care lags

We’ve seen the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color in cases, hospitalizations, deaths, job losses and over-representation among essential workers. And we’ve witnessed continued racial and ethnic discrimination, most violently and visibly manifested by police brutality and hate crimes, resulting in a grave toll on not only the physical, but also mental health of Black and Asian American people in particular.

Pre-pandemic, these groups already experienced higher rates of need as mental health and addiction conditions are also often activated or exacerbated by social determinants of health. Due to structural racism, BIPOC groups have been disproportionately impacted by poverty, housing instability, food insecurity and unequal access to quality education.

Corresponding statistics on access to care reveal a chronic underinvestment in awareness, prevention and treatment around the health of these communities. For instance, of those with mental illness, three-quarters of Asian Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and African Americans received no treatment. Moreover, as the American Psychiatric Association notes, there are alarming differences in treatment: “Compared with the general population, African Americans are less likely to be offered either evidence-based medication therapy or psychotherapy.”

The consequences should not be surprising. According to Psychiatric Services, reducing racial disparities in access to care could result in cost savings of $1 billion or more nationwide. The reduction in human suffering, however, would be incalculable and game-changing.

Improved outcomes demand comprehensive solutions

Mindful Philanthropy, along with funding partners and advocacy organizations, is advancing the rationale for increased government and philanthropic funding for BIPOC well-being. With just 5% of U.S. foundation healthcare grantmaking directed to mental healthcare and less than 1% of U.S. government health spending going to mental health, we know even fewer resources are dedicated to BIPOC mental health and addiction.

It is imperative that the philanthropic sector take the lead in creating racial equity, which includes addressing social determinants of health to promote well-being by intentionally making funding decisions through the lens of mental health. Among the promising strategies Mindful supports are:

  • Creating sustained upstream investments in equitable, cost-effective prevention and early intervention at systems and population levels; and

  • Collaborating with adjacent program areas with BIPOC overrepresentation (e.g., carceral and child welfare systems) that are drivers of, and warehouses for, those with mental health and addiction conditions.

Promising community-driven programs that are making a difference

To maximize funders’ return on investment, Mindful Philanthropy identifies programs that raise awareness about conditions and treatment with trusted messengers, improve data collection, integrate physical and mental healthcare, diversify the workforce, and cultivate patient-centered, culturally competent care. There are many innovative examples of effective initiatives that advance equitable access to care. Highlights include:

  • The Confess Project encourages cultural dialogue about African American male emotional health by training barbers to become mental health advocates. Using a grassroots organizing approach linked to direct action, the program immerses individuals with a voice to shape public policy, public opinion and eliminate mental health stigma.

  • The Steve Fund is dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color. They offer an array of virtual and in-person programs and services grounded in research and best practices designed to ensure young people of color have an equal opportunity to thrive in their academic and career pursuits.

  • Public Allies recruits young leaders whose promise and potential are too frequently overlooked, including young adults aging out of the foster care system; those who must remake their lives following incarceration; and single mothers seeking a bridge from GED to college and career. They are currently designing programs and services to address the mental health and well-being of young people of color and ensure they can activate their full leadership potential.

  • For a model of how funders can holistically integrate mental health as a part of their approach to equity, look to Chicago Beyond. Chicago Beyond invests in everything from education, youth safety, community development, health, wellness, and beyond, each in themselves barriers to mental well-being and equity.

Please join us in leveraging the increased philanthropic appetite for multi-systems reform to measurably improve mental health and well-being outcomes for communities of color.

Barbara Ricci is executive director of Mindful Philanthropy, which amplifies the impact of philanthropic investments for bold advancements in mental health, addiction and community well-being.