Tending to the Human Side: Mental Health & Wellness Project Learnings

By Jocelyn Curran

Over the past few years, PF staff has heard from grantees about how difficult it can be when serving populations experiencing poverty in Silicon Valley and, specifically, East Palo Alto. A reported 44% of the students enrolled in the Ravenswood City School District are currently homeless (according to RCSD data) and the number of students who are experiencing trauma has increased drastically, as well. The trials facing today’s youth are more than anyone could imagine, and PF grantees are on the front lines providing emotional and mental support to youth in a way that many of us could not.

Trauma experienced by caregivers and front line staff as a result of providing trauma care (Secondary Trauma) takes its toll on caregivers. We continue to hear that the weight of supporting communities in these ways is heavy, and nonprofit staff are struggling to take care of themselves, often talking about burnout and leaving organizations. With the high cost of living in the area, it is often difficult for nonprofit staff to prioritize their own mental health when there are bills to pay. We decided to meet these courageous people where they are, and provide the support we’re hearing them ask for. Ultimately, we hope this will enable the improvement of mental healthcare and wellbeing services for individual staff members, as well as the improvement of organization’s health generally. Healthier staff could mean less burnout and turnover, so that services are delivered more seamlessly to students and families.

In 2018, we ran a pilot with a Local Portfolio grantee and covered the cost of working with a mental health provider (StarVista in this case). We wanted to understand how access to mental health services would impact those working on the front lines if money were not a factor. We were also deliberate in using very broad language on how these funds could be used. There is no way that we could possibly know how NonProfits could best use funds like these and I feel strongly that grantees should be able to choose what makes the most sense for them.

Ultimately, the pilot was so successful that we extended it from 4 months to 12 months. The grantee had access to group therapy sessions and individual therapy sessions, both of which were utilized for the entire year. Their team has cited numerous improvements to their mental health because of the services provided such as improved camaraderie amongst their team and lower stress levels. Once we heard this, we knew there was a bigger role the PF could play in supporting the Mental Health & Wellbeing needs of more grantees.

The second phase of this initiative has been focused on rolling this offering out to more grantees across our portfolios. We are currently testing this idea of providing $35,000 per year to our grantees for mental health and wellness services for up to 3 years. We can’t fund these services indefinitely. But, the idea is that we can help get these services up and running, subsidize some of the cost so that, over time, grantees can begin to fundraise so they can continue to offer this to staff. Currently, we have 2 Local Portfolio grantees and 2 Regional Portfolio grantees that are helping us test this next iteration. So far, the funds have been primarily used for individual and group therapy for their staff. We have one organization who used some of the funds at their team retreat to encourage team bonding.

This project has been some of the most rewarding work I have been able to do at the foundation to date. This whole project is very much a work in progress and I invite feedback as I think about what the next iteration of this project looks like. We hope to start measuring the efficacy of this offering in 2019 and I will share those learnings as we have them. The ultimate dream is to show the impact of these offerings to other funders and have them join us in funding mental health and wellness services across the board. We definitely do not have all the answers but we want to try and help with such a daunting issue.