Harnessing the power of philanthropy to support mental health during Covid-19


Byron Bitanihirwe


As the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to evolve, a number of socio-economic and public health vulnerabilities have been exposed. These vulnerabilities range from student equity and job uncertainty to overwhelmed healthcare systems – each of which can impact mental health.

Mental health problems remain a leading cause of disability worldwide and cost society billions of dollars annually – due to lost productivity, service costs and early mortality – with estimates suggesting that unaddressed mental health needs could result in losses approaching $16 trillion to the global economy by 2030. The Covid-19 pandemic amplifies the existing mental health crisis due to complex psychosocial stressors such as loneliness, stigma and bereavement. In this regard, the philanthropic sector has mobilized in excess of $20 billion to help support long-term challenges related to the pandemic including mental health problems.

As 2021 unfolds, the need to harness global philanthropy as a sustainable opportunity to quell the psychological impact of Covid-19 will be vital.

Impact of Covid-19 on mental health

Covid-19 has brought about many changes to our daily lives including social distancing, masking and lockdown.

An unintended consequence of lockdown has been a slew of mental health disorders ranging from anxiety and substance abuse to suicidal behaviour. It is also known that lockdown has dramatically compounded domestic abuse among vulnerable groups such as women and children.

Without mental health there can be no true physical health

Perhaps more disturbingly is the high level of burnout syndrome, problem drinking, and post-traumatic stress disorder reported among frontline healthcare workers exposed to Covid-19.

At this point in time, it is difficult to estimate the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of society. However, one can anticipate a rise in stress-related disorders among parents stemming from economic and job insecurity, worsened by caring for children that should normally be in school. Similarly, children and young adults are more likely to experience emotional distress due to self-isolation and uncertainty surrounding their future. The growing trend of internet addiction and e-gambling represents another collateral effect of the pandemic.An equally significant aspectis the disruption to mental health services which will result in a flood of exacerbated and untreated mental illness.

Mental health as an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals

In 1954 Dr. George Brock Chisholm, the first Director General of the World Health Organization, famously stated that: “without mental health there can be no true physical health”. Despite this call for parity of professional and societal attention paid to physical and mental health, mental healthcare resources continue to lag behind physical healthcare services.

Recent years have seen a thrust in resource allocation for mental health. This shift in ideology is encapsulated by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that includes two key targets (3.4 and 3.5) which focus on mental health and substance abuse. These targets are intimately linked to SDG 8 in terms of achieving sustainable economic growth through productive employment and decent work for all.

Strict lockdown measures have resulted in an unfortunate setback on hard earned progress in the SDGs related to poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), and inequality (SDG 10) – which contribute to mental wellbeing – particularly among disadvantaged populations including refugees, ethnic minorities and communities living in low-and middle-income countries.

Fortunately, philanthropic vehicles including the Sustainable Development Goals Philanthropy platform provide an effective networking tool for key stakeholders to engage, collaborate and share knowledge to help attain the SDGs.

Philanthropic opportunities in the mental health Space in the age of Covid-19

A number of mental health charities around the world (e.g., Strong Minds) have expanded their efforts to improve access to mental health treatment and support during the Covid-19 crisis. One relatively new player in this space, Pivotal Ventures (A Melinda Gates Company), is looking to provide mental health and digital wellbeing resources for young people and their caregivers.

MQ: Transforming Mental Health, an international Mental Health Research charity, has launched a £3 million campaign to meet the mental health crisis created by Covid-19. This investment will be divided among 3 different projects: 

  1. Leaders in Science – Will develop evidence-based solutions to mental health challenges as a result of Covid-19.
  2. Leaders in Collaboration – Will foster ground-breaking collaborations to galvanise the sector, including this year’s MQ Mental Health Science Summit.
  3. Leaders in Engagement – Will engage and inspire the public to be part of the mental health research response to Coivd-19.

While the need to improve the knowledge, treatment and research funding on mental health conditions remains paramount, strategic philanthropy geared towards supporting mental health is just as important.

As a global community, we are in an unprecedented moment of change. If philanthropy is willing to acknowledge its potential and take swift action to ‘cushion’ the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, we are poised to unlock transformational change in mental healthcare at all strata of society for years to come.

I would like to thank Professor Clemente Garcia-Rizo (University of Barcelona), Mr. Mafa Chipeta (former FAO subregional coordinator for Eastern Africa) and Mr. Byron Dunkley for constructive criticism of the manuscript.

Byron Bitanihirwe, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist with an interest in global mental health – particularly sustainable initiatives that can provide support to people with mental health needs in low- and middle-income countries.

Comments (1)

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This article has really brightened the philathropy sector for me. I am a bachelor in architecture student currently in search of a career to venture into after university. I have always believed in the preservation of all nature including physical, economical, mental or emotional. I am still yet to truly discover the approach into philathropy but it is now my top career choice. Thank You So Much to the author and all the people in the industry who volunteered to educate us, that we can come from anywhere, be anyone and still be a part of a bigger picture.

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