Calibrating philanthropic and charitable giving to mental health


Mental health problems remain a leading cause of disability worldwide, with emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, costing the global economy in the region of $1 trillion annually.

Some factors known to impact mental health include the Covid-19 pandemic, frequent exposure to social media, and humanitarian crises. These observations are emphasised in the recent World Health Organization (WHO) mental health report: Transforming Mental Health for All, which highlights fragmented mental health services – around the world – continue to make it difficult ­­­­for many people with mental health problems to access mental health support, especially those who are vulnerable or marginalized (e.g., people living in low and middle income countries, LMICs).

One of the recurring themes in discussions around improving mental health care provision is investing more in mental health – a movement currently championed by organisations such as United for Global Mental Health, Healthy Brains Global Initiative, MQ: Transforming Mental Health, and the WHO.

Investing in mental health not only helps protect human rights and boost pioneering research aimed at treating mental illness but also offers opportunities for return on investment (ROI) at both individual and societal levels.

Here, we draw attention to four elements we believe can help spur philanthropic action in the mental health space.

For more coverage on philanthropy and mental health, check out our 2022 issue on the subject.

Rewriting the narrative surrounding mental health

There has been a dramatic shift in the narrative surrounding mental health as a glimpse of a life post-Covid-19 gradually comes into view. Notably, mental health problems are no longer shunned and kept secret. Social media has provided a conduit for people to share their experiences and how these have affected their mental health. A further poignant moment has been the shift in public perception (i.e., less discrimination and stigma) and talking about having a mental health problem as a yes or no narrative to talking about mental health. Continuing this dialogue by educating the general population on the value of maintaining good mental health and equipping individuals with strategies (e.g., mindfulness) for how to do this is imperative. And as we know, health literacy can help individuals to distinguish between good and bad information, driving better-informed decisions in relation to philanthropic giving.

Achieving meaningful change in transparency

Lack of transparency often defeats the best of intentions and hides the need for action in a fog of uncertainty. For this reason, it is vital to increase transparency in the mental health charity sector to help build trust with recipient organisations and inform other donors about best practices. This helps to inform shared understanding not just of what gets funded, but why, and how funders adapt based on evidence of what is working or not. Extending transparency on these fronts should further boost the effectiveness of philanthropy and stories of impact that may attract more investment for positive change in the mental health space.

Drawing on the power of markets

Although markets are traditionally seen as a place to pursue self-interest, they have the capacity to do much more. For instance, markets can be a powerful force to improve the quality of people’s lives and in the process enable a more meaningful contribution to society.

Philanthropic funding alone is unlikely to be able to address the magnitude of the mental health challenges ahead, exacerbated by a global health pandemic and socio-economic uncertainty. One solution to this conundrum is impact investing that has gained enormous traction since the term was coined back in 2007. Indeed, in its latest survey, The Global Impact Investing Network, reported that around 280 impact investors made about 9,800 investments for a total of $47 billion in 2019 and this sum is not expected to diminish in years to come. The good news is that impact investing interestingly incorporates new topics. In a recent such example, the International Committee of the Red Cross just successfully concluded its ‘Program for Humanitarian Impact Investment‘, which brought impact investing to the humanitarian sector for the first time and enabled the creation of physical rehabilitation centres in three African countries thanks to private sector funding.

Engaging philanthropic advisors in the mental health space

Strategic philanthropic or corporate social responsibility donations are another powerful way to help advance the state of global mental health. For example, Cartier has supported the mental health charity StrongMinds through its philanthropic arm and helped unlock enormous impact. StrongMinds is an organisation that operates in Uganda and Zambia and trains lay community workers in a culturally adapted form of group interpersonal therapy to treat depression in women and adolescents. This model has been reported to deliver an ROI that is up to nine times more cost-effective than direct cash transfers for improving the life of an individual as well as their entire household. In this context, philanthropic advisors represent an invaluable asset in providing evidence-based strategies through which a donor can realistically achieve their philanthropic goal(s), with how much money, and over what time horizon.


While many challenges continue to face philanthropy in the mental health space, understanding the structures and dynamics of philanthropic engagement to identify where problems lie and where they can evolve to become more effective is paramount. As such, the potential economic and public health benefits of a calibrated philanthropic response towards mental health are worth focusing on now and for years to come.

We extend our sincere gratitude to Cynthia Joyce of MQ Foundation and Antoine Montavon of Bank Lombard Odier in addition to Rasa Dawson and Holly Elliott of StrongMinds who provided invaluable insight and comments in relation to an earlier version of the manuscript.

Byron Bitanihirwe, Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Global Health at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), University of Manchester and is Project Co-Lead for the University of Manchester-Harvard Global Research Network. Sean Mayberry, MBA. is the Founder and Executive Director of StrongMinds. Maximilian Martin, Ph.D. serves as Global Head of Philanthropy at Lombard Odier Group, Secretary General of the Fondation Lombard Odier, a Trustee of the Fondation Philanthropia and the Womanity Foundation.

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