Bills Seek to Bolster Children’s Mental Health

According to a 2018 report from advocacy group Children Now, only about a third of California children who report needing help for emotional or mental health problems receive counseling. And mental illness is the number one reason California kids are hospitalized, the report states. Photo: iStock

As California struggles to meet children’s mental health needs, lawmakers are pressing for two bills that would take steps to address the problem.

The bills seek to strengthen mental health services for children and youth, either through targeted funding or by instituting new training requirements for people who regularly work with young people.

The state Senate recently approved the bills, SB 906 and 1019, and they are now awaiting a vote in the Assembly.

Although the future of the bills is uncertain, their consideration by the state legislature offers an encouraging sign that lawmakers are starting to take children’s health more seriously, said Lishaun Francis, senior associate for health collaborations with the advocacy group Children Now.

“We’re excited that mental health for kids is getting this kind of attention in the legislature,” she said.

“Studies have shown that (childhood) wellbeing is a prime indicator for success later in life,” Francis added. “So a child’s emotional wellbeing, a child’s mental wellbeing, is going to determine how successful they are in the future.”

California ranks low when it comes to providing mental health services to children, according to a 2018 report by Children Now. The report gave the state a D+ grade for its handling of mental health treatment and mental illness prevention for youth.

According to the organization, only about a third of California children who report needing help for emotional or mental health problems receive counseling. And mental illness is the number one reason California kids are hospitalized, the report states.

Senate bill 906 would establish a certificate program for people who provide peer support to children, foster youth and family caregivers grappling with mental health or substance use issues. Peer-support specialists have lived experience of the problems their clients are dealing with and help guide them to the resources they need.

According to the bill, California has 6,000 peer providers but no standard training or certification standards. The bill would aim to change that.

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, said her organization hasn’t taken a position on the bill, but believes the peer-support model works. The center currently offers peer support for youth transitioning out of the foster-care system.

“Generally we think that the peer-support model can be extremely effective, especially for clients or consumers who have had bad experiences with service agencies, which is common,” she said. “A peer-support model can be very useful in helping change that relationship and helping the client or consumer take advantage of what good the government has to offer, and not throw it all away because they’re frustrated.”

Senate bill 1019, meanwhile, would require that at least half of the funds the state Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission distributes to counties under the 2013 Investment in Mental Health Wellness Act be used to expand mental health programs for children age 18 and under, particularly in schools.

“Schools are the best place to identify children in need of mental health treatment and link them to services,” said Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) in a statement. “Early intervention and prevention will improve student outcomes both inside and outside the classroom. SB 1019 provides the needed resources so kids can excel in their academic and personal lives.’’

A third children’s mental health bill, AB 2686, stalled in the Assembly appropriations committee and will not move forward this year, said Shelli Jackson, senior legislative aide to Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, who introduced the bill. The bill would have cost more than the $150,000 threshold for the appropriations committee, so the committee withheld it, Jackson said.

The bill would require school districts, charter schools and county offices of education to train teachers and staff who work with children in kindergarten through 12th grade on how to identify students with mental health issues.

“We would love it if every adult who came into contact with a child had this kind of training,” Francis said. “We think the impact that adults in schools have on kids’ lives can be just paramount.”

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