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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

Youth Mental Health Receives Boost from $15M MacKenzie Scott Gift

In February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Morgan Stanley Foundation reported that 23 percent of young people in America grappled with mental health issues—around 17 million individuals. In disadvantaged communities, less than 15 percent of children with such issues obtained crucial services and completed treatment. In 2020, according to the Jed Foundation, the number of young adults experiencing symptoms of mental illness rose to three in 10, and more than half of those didn't receive care.

Close to 20 percent of high school students report having suicidal thoughts, and among people in the 18 to 24-year age range, this rises to over 25 percent. Suicide is the second leading cause of youth and young adult deaths, yet mental health receives a small share of philanthropic funding (0.5 percent). A $15 million gift from MacKenzie Scott to the Jed Foundation is helping change that. The donation will aid JED's efforts to provide 8 million additional college students as well as 1.2 million high school students with its comprehensive approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention.

"For more than two decades, The Jed Foundation has been committed to ensuring that all young people are equipped with the support they need to meet mental health challenges in healthy ways so that they may fully realize their potential in adulthood," says JED co-founder Phil Sataw. “This gift will be instrumental in supporting JED's work to strengthen communities of care in high schools, colleges, and universities with systems, programs, and policies that support the mental health of students and reduce risks for suicide.”

Creating Change from Tragedy

When 20-year-old University of Arizona student Jed Satow committed suicide in 1998, his parents, Phil and Donna Satow, met with the university president to understand what could have been done to save him. They soon realized there was little discussion about or understanding of mental illness and the risk of suicide within the university system. To fill this gap, in 2000, the Satows established the Jed Foundation; today, the organization is a leading authority on preventing college student suicides.

The Satows considered their family close and happy. Jed was popular and outgoing. However, his parents recall episodes of sullenness, anger, and impulsiveness during Jed’s high school days. When they spoke of it to others, they were assured it was typical teenage behavior he would grow out of. What they learned was that depression can manifest differently in young people than it does in adults.

Young people can overreact in the moment to problems because they don’t have the experience to know these difficulties are not permanent. They can also appear outgoing when they’re really feeling lonely or angry or when they’re actually sad. The Satows also discovered that emotional and mental health issues often accompany learning disabilities in young adults. They now suspect Jed may have had undiagnosed depression in addition to his diagnosed learning disability.

Prevention Requires a Multi-Point Plan of Action

The Satows researched other closed systems and discovered the Air Force had a successful mental health and suicide prevention program, which they set about adapting for an audience of college students. However, with only 10 – 15 percent of students using counseling centers, the Jed Foundation’s program needed to take mental health services and suicide prevention beyond the counseling center. Instead, it aims to help administrators create an institution-wide safety net for vulnerable students.

JED believes emotional wellness is critical to higher education and life readiness. It, therefore, takes a multipronged approach. JED’s nationwide programs, channels, and partnerships help young people build resilience and develop life skills through initiatives as varied as providing healthy food and free gym access.

These programs promote social connectedness and help identify at-risk individuals while increasing help-seeking behaviors and providing mental health services. The organization also provides resources about crisis management procedures and promotes restricting access to potentially lethal areas, such as roofs. The Jed Foundation mobilizes communities through awareness, training, and tools to identify and assist vulnerable young people.

The Multiplier Effect of MacKenzie Scott’s Unrestricted Gifts

In 2020, MacKenzie Scott rocked the philanthropy world with the first of her unrestricted gifts to hundreds of charities totaling billions of dollars. Scott, an author who won the American Book Award in 2006, also played an instrumental backstage role in building Amazon with ex-husband Jeff Bezos.

She has expressed reluctance to speak publicly about her philanthropy. Still, she writes that she aims to help historically marginalized people by supporting charities focusing on racial, gender, and social justice. Scott believes that “people who have experience with inequities are the ones best equipped to design solutions.”

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