Five Lessons We've Learned About Funding Mental Health
by El Pomar Foundation Trustees Judy Bell and Nechie Hall
According to Mental Health America, Colorado currently holds the 7th highest prevalence of mental illness amongst the 50 states and the District of Columbia.[i] As the North Regional Council knows, this fact certainly holds true across communities in northern Colorado. In 2016, the North Regional Council identified youth mental health as its new focus area. Then, after research and discussion with local stakeholders, in 2018, the Council began a multi-year funding relationship with SummitStone Health Partners and North Range Behavioral Health to hire two mental health clinicians each to work in Thompson and Fort Lupton School Districts, respectively. These clinicians provide direct therapy, group therapy, family therapy, teacher training, crisis intervention and de-escalation support as well as consultation for school administrators. These services also helped to destigmatize mental health, increase the capabilities of school staff and change the culture of mental health for the entire community.
At the conclusion of its first year, the program yielded impressive results. In the 2018-2019 academic year, mental health clinicians provided direct services to 172 unduplicated students through more than 1,400 direct service hours. On average, these students saw a 46% increase in school satisfaction, a 57% decrease in out of school suspensions and a 35% increase in academic success.
These grants served as the North Regional Council’s entry into funding mental health initiatives. With mental health needs increasing in communities across the state, the North Regional Council is eager to share five key lessons from funding in mental health.
1. Funding providers is necessary but challenging
The unmet need for mental health services in Colorado is fueled by a shortage of mental health care professionals. Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 30% of Colorado’s mental health needs are being met in part due to the workforce shortage.[ii] These shortages are intensified in rural communities.[iii]
Because of workforce shortages, the North Regional Council directed its funding to hire four behavioral health clinicians to work in underserved schools. The Council was particularly intentional about discussing and planning for the positions’ financial sustainability before entering into a grant agreement, a dialogue critical for success in funding positions or salary in any focus area. Given the potential negative consequences of interrupted services due to funding shortages, this conversation is especially critical when funding mental health providers or programming. For this reason, the Council has learned to discuss the program’s financial sustainability transparently and frequently.
2. Find your niche
When the North Regional Council decided to focus on student mental health, the region’s needs and opportunities were overwhelming. In order to identify a specific area of service within the scope of the Council’s annual grant making, decisions had to be made to support younger or older children, prevention or direct care, and in-person or virtual means. Ultimately, the Council opted to fund in-school, direct-service counseling for students through community behavioral health centers.
With the region’s vast mental and behavioral health needs, picking only one area to support was challenging. However, the Council’s thoughtful work to effectively narrow its focus to a specific aspect of mental health was key to the grantees’ success in the first year and a half of funding.
3. Identify and elminate barriers to access
An essential consideration for the North Council’s ultimate funding decision was identifying a program that would eliminate barriers in accessing mental health services. In the North Region, as with most of Colorado, the two primary barriers are cost and transportation. Mental and behavioral health services can be expensive, and providers can be inconveniently located. The Council’s grantees address these barriers by providing direct care at no cost to the individual and fully integrating services into a school setting.
4. Measure and evaluate quantitatively and qualitatively
At the program’s outset, the Council and grantees agreed to reporting guidelines, including timelines and metrics. This structure allows specific opportunities for programmatic adjustments and enables all parties to evaluate the progress of the programming on a regular basis. Frequent reevaluation of the metrics and data has taught the Council to be thoughtful about what is being measured and to think critically about how it speaks to the impact of the Council’s grant making.
5. Be adaptable and demonstrate trust
An essential lesson for the Council throughout this grant process is the need to adapt to changing circumstances. Since the inception of the program, we’ve modified reporting timelines, recipient schools and the number of schools served. All of these decisions were made through conversation with our grantee partners. More so than with previous grantee relationships, the Council has learned that it is essential to trust our grantee partners and be willing to adapt plans continuously as individual schools and student bodies have different needs. It is the personalization to the population served that makes the program more successful.
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Mental health is an ongoing challenge for not only northern Colorado but the state of Colorado as a whole. With such great need, the intentional efforts of the North Regional Council and its grantees to understand the community-specific challenges and strategically structure multi-year grants were critical to the funded programs’ success in the first 18 months. Although philanthropy alone cannot solve Colorado’s mental health crisis, it has a crucial role to play. In sharing these lessons, the North Regional Council hopes others considering funding in mental health have an additional resource as they strive to make an impact in this critically important area.
Judy has served as a Trustee of El Pomar Foundation since 1996. Read more about Judy here.
Nechie has served as a Trustee of El Pomar Foundation since 2015. Read more about Nechie here.