Youth mental health hangs in balance. Philanthropy can help.

April 14, 2020

Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

America is facing unprecedented challenges. In just a few weeks, COVID-19 has changed nearly every facet of American life. Even as we hopefully look to the time when social distancing and shelter-in-place orders are over, our country – and our state – will not return to the same normal.

As hundreds of thousands of Utah’s youth enter week five of these restrictive measures and social isolation, we should be particularly wary of the impact of this new reality on their mental health.

The youth mental health problem in Utah was dire before coronavirus. According to the Utah Department of Public Health, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17 years old in 2018, and the second leading cause of death among the same demographic nationwide. According to other reporting, Utah’s rate of suicides among 10- to 17-year-olds skyrocketed from 3.8 per 100,000 in 2009 to 11.1 per 100,000 in 2015 – well above the national rate, which had climbed to just 4.2.

In a preview of a forthcoming study to be published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers confirm that today’s young people face an epidemic of anxiety and depression. From 2009 to 2017, depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. How much worse might this epidemic be in the wake of coronavirus?

Though government must be part of the solution, by its nature government cannot do it all, and it is inadequate for addressing certain types of problems. Pulling our youth back from the edge of despair is a critical priority that demands more – it demands a concerted effort among educators, lawmakers, health professionals and families. Churches and community groups are also critical.

It is in situations like this that America’s philanthropic tradition shines. Private philanthropic foundations in Utah and throughout the nation are marshaling significant financial resources and influence to help address teen suicide within communities, and to fill in where government comes up short.

Utah is home to some of the most generous people in the world. Selfless giving is deeply ingrained in Utah culture. Nearly two dozen Utah foundations invest over $70 million in philanthropic efforts annually. According to one ranking, Utah was the second most charitable state in the nation. It leads all other states in the percentage of population who donate money and ties for first in the percentage of donated income.

Last year, the John and Karen Huntsman Foundation pledged an impressive $150 million to the University of Utah to improve mental health resources for over 30,000 young people on campus, in rural areas, and across the state, and to advance research for improved mental health treatment.

The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, which gives out $26 million annually, supports mental health organizations across the state. The Community Foundation of Utah has provided grants to family support centers that leverage the money to fund needs assessments of mental health services for children.

Foundations are a powerful ally because they are integral to the communities they serve, often working side by side with direct providers on the front lines. They have deep roots within their communities, which help in building trust with stakeholders and recruiting talented workers. Such community integration makes certain that grants are properly targeted and maximally effective.

This partnership between foundations and communities will only grow more important in the wake of coronavirus. Now is the time to encourage more giving, deeper partnership, and greater innovation and creativity to tackle the challenges before us.

Believe it or not, there are some who object to private philanthropy and wish to direct all charitable giving through government channels instead, with all the restrictions and regulations imposed by government. They seek to impose constraints on private foundations that would limit their effectiveness in the communities they serve over time. Now might be the worst possible time in history for increased constraints and regulation.

That is why the philanthropic community is grateful to this year’s Utah Legislature for passing and Governor Gary Herbert for signing into law legislation that preserves private giving by protecting donor anonymity. The legislation also prohibits government intrusion in the makeup of foundation boards or meddling with where and how private giving can be directed. Utah recognizes that private giving should remain exactly that, private – individuals should remain free to give when, where and as they wish. Only with freedom like this will we marshal the resources to tackle the significant challenges before us.

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