Opinion: What California Must Do for Kids’ Mental Health

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A pandemic, rampant wildfires, a national racial reckoning — the events of 2020 have led to social isolation and higher rates of stress and anxiety for children and teens. And the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black, Latino and other communities of color only exacerbates health inequities that existed before. 

California leaders must step up now to address the fragmented systems that lead to disparate outcomes by neighborhood. Children and teens must be able to access the mental health care they need. Otherwise the consequences can be dire.

Child and teen suicide rates are predicted to rise, intensifying an existing mental health crisis. From 2009 to 2018, suicides among youth ages 12 through 19 increased by 15 percent statewide while instances of self-harm reported in this age group increased by 50 percent. Due to systemic inequities, children and teens of color are affected more often when it comes to mental health crises, with Latinos ages 10 through 19 representing nearly 40 percent of the total deaths by suicide among Californians in this age range in 2017.  

The simple truth is that California does not have a sustainable, long-term plan to support children and teenager’s mental well-being. As such, any steps forward on child and teen mental health are often inadequately funded or lack the oversight needed to achieve the intended results. Here are some examples:

  • The new Office of Suicide Prevention, created under Assembly bill 2112, will support important education initiatives. However, the office is currently unfunded, and future funding is uncertain. 
  • In 2016, California passed legislation that required local education agencies to create and implement suicide prevention policies for students in grades 7-12, but a recent State Auditor’s report found that several districts were not in compliance.
  • ACEs Aware initiative, led by the state Surgeon General, educates health care providers about the trauma experienced by young Californians, and its potential impact on their physical and mental health. However, due to anticipated budget challenges, most payments funded under Proposition 56, including those that support ACES Aware, are likely to be suspended on July 1, 2021.
  • Senate bill 75 established the Mental Health Student Services Act to fund partnerships between a county’s mental health or behavioral health department and school districts, charter schools or county offices of education. However, the state only provided enough funding for 18 counties, leaving 20 counties willing to participate but unfunded. 

California needs to get real about the serious challenges facing children and teens. We cannot continue to cobble together a broken system that perpetuates inequity. The state must create a sustainable, long-term plan to transform the existing mental health care system into one that centers on children, teens and young adults. 

The nonprofit I work for, Children Now, spells out how California can better support the mental health of children and teens in a recent policy guide. We recommend that the state take a population health approach by focusing on the environmental and social factors that contribute to positive health outcomes. California should identify young people in need of support, invest in programs that assist in fostering children’s social emotional well-being and disinvest from programs and policies that harm children and teenagers. These are some of our recommendations: 

  • Direct investments to community-based programs that reduce instances of domestic, community and police violence. This is sure to reduce stress and improve social connectedness. 
  • Ensure programs that support maternal mental health and promote child, family and community well-being are adequately funded and accessible statewide. 
  • Require, fund and monitor services provided to children and teens through clinical, community and school settings that are trauma-informed, culturally congruent and competent. 
  • Invest in community-led education programs that encourage prevention and early intervention on healthy norms and positive relationships, the importance of LGBTQ+ affirming spaces and the warning signs of youth suicide. 

Now is the time for state leaders to prioritize the mental health and wellness of our kids. If the world we created for our kids isn’t working for them, we must do everything we can to construct a better one. Their futures depend on it. 

Lishaun Francis is the associate director of health collaborations at Children Now. 

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