Funding to Boost Child Behavioral Health


In 2012, the CDC found that one in five US children had a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or developmental condition – and half had gone untreated. Now, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that 71 percent of parents say the pandemic took a toll on their children’s mental health, manifesting in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. GMA’s Child Behavioral Health Fund explored the growing problem and identified ways funders can respond.

Integrate Child Behavioral Health Interventions

The pandemic made clear what many experts already knew: children and youth are facing a mental and behavioral health crisis, now exacerbated by social isolation. Those in need of care continue to face stigma and a lack of options for treatment. The escalation has forced public attention on the deep weaknesses in our mental and behavioral health care system for young people.

This system extends beyond the clinical setting to schools and enrichment programs. Though many schools have instituted mental and behavioral health supports, they are reaching only some students.

The solution? Build up an interlocking and impenetrable shield of support. Provide funding for approaches that integrate behavioral health interventions into high-quality programs for all children and the adults in their lives. Build up programs that (a) help all children, (b) tend to the whole child, and (c) support their front-line workers.

Help All Children, Not Some

Some children and youth have severe mental illnesses that only specialists can treat – but all young people benefit from specialized instruction that nurtures their mental health. This is a point made very clearly by Dr. Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects.

Leading by example, City Connects offers school counselors and teachers a framework for supporting every child with an enrichment and treatment plan tailored to their specific needs and strengths. These plans integrate the multiple interventions and opportunities available to children and youth in schools, with their families, and out in the community. City Connects’ integrative one-on-one, all-child approach has proven to build resilience in youth, and resilience is essential for anyone in the face of adversity.

Tend to the Whole Child

Studies show that children in low-income areas and youth of color experienced significantly greater behavioral and mental health effects during the pandemic. Well aware of this, youth development organizations that serve these populations are working hard to meet the needs of the whole child.

For instance, Roca has tailored its programming to respond to the distinct needs of young adults who have experienced extensive trauma and are at the center of urban violence. Relentless in its mission, Roca incorporates elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) into its programming, accounts for the possibility of participants’ relapse, and meets young people where they are – both mentally and physically.

Similarly,  the Chica Project has been bolstering the mental and behavioral health elements in its programming for young Latinas and Women of Color. Driven by research correlating socio-cultural factors to higher risk of mental health challenges and suicide, Chica staff and youth are immersed in training, dialogue, and outreach. They work to build a positive cultural identity in Chica’s youth, and to deconstruct the systems and stigmas that prevent Latinx children from seeking help.

Support Front-line Workers

The support of a trusted adult is necessary for even the most resilient child. Unfortunately, the number of front-line workers is dwindling, supports for the workers are scant, and families are running out of options. Funders can help support front-line workers through grants for:

  • General operations. Ensure that organizations have the tools to provide effective support right now, and the ability to increase staff capacity over the long term.
  • Innovation. As Massachusetts Association for Mental Health (MAMH) CEO Danna Mauch reminds us, people experience varying levels of mental and behavioral health issues. Training and recruiting licensed professionals to treat acute needs is a lengthy process. Funders can support the integration of unlicensed health workers to more quickly address less acute needs.
  • Professional development. Children’s outcomes are likely to improve when counselors, social workers, mentors, and parents are well-equipped to take care of themselves too. Funders can support the integration of mental and behavioral health care into organizations’ professional development curricula.

Philanthropic Support

In addition to direct support to organizations, there is opportunity in funding nonprofits’ collaboration to effect change on a systemic scale. These efforts include advocating for Universal Pre-K, standardizing and equitably funding childcare, and implementing a continuum of care for all students in public school.

Foundation leaders participating in GMA’s Child Behavioral Health Fund spoke with experts in the fields of education, mental health, and youth development about the need for philanthropic support. Each helped us more fully appreciate the longstanding urgency of addressing child behavioral health.

As a vehicle for funders to pool resources and learn, the GMA Funder Community itself represents the integration nonprofit leaders are calling for in the field. Opportunities for collaboration – between schools, nonprofits, government entities, and funders – abound. May all of us seek them out.

Sarah Kain, a foundation assistant at GMA, supports funders with a variety of interests, including women’s reproductive rights, arts and culture, and opportunity for individuals and families in under-resourced communities in the Greater Boston area and internationally.