While the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our oldest Californians is well known, the pandemic also has caused widespread emotional suffering among California’s children and youth. One in four young adults between 18 and 24 have considered suicide because of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego attributes a 25 percent increase in mental health emergency room visits to the effects of the pandemic.
Out of this crisis, Gov. Gavin Newsom has demonstrated visionary leadership in making a historic $4.4 billion investment to transform the state’s behavioral health system for youth. His Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative envisions a world-class system that screens all children, treats emerging mental health challenges and provides comprehensive, integrated, home-based support to every youth who needs it.
California’s patchwork, threadbare and siloed systems serving youth were insufficient even before the pandemic. Chronic underfunding of behavioral health programs, stigma faced by youth seeking help and a long-standing dearth of behavioral health workers have crippled California’s behavioral health system. California, for example, meets only 27 percent of the demand for professionally trained behavioral health workers.
California’s children have paid the price. Childhood and adolescence are the most critical times to identify and address emerging behavioral health needs; half of all chronic mental health problems begin by age 14, and 75 percent manifest by age 25. Yet, of all youth diagnosed with a behavioral health condition, only about one third receive treatment. Some youth have been placed out of state because California lacks programs serving youth with substance use and specialized treatment needs.
Governor Newsom’s courageous initiative tackles these challenges head on. It harnesses the untapped potential of our state to provide the comprehensive and innovative programs youth need to thrive. They include:
- Turning the crisis-first model upside down. The Governor’s plan recognizes that early screening and intervention is a critical window of opportunity to prevent greater harm to children. A virtual behavioral health platform will provide automated screenings, assessments and self-monitoring tools and will connect with clinic-based care and app-based services.
- Significant new funding for services across the spectrum of youth needs. Newsom funds a robust system of behavioral health services for all students and families provided by trusted community partners and connected to school campuses where there are fewer barriers to accessing care; proven models of early treatment for significant mental health challenges such as psychosis; mobile and residential crisis services; integrated treatment for youth and their caregivers; and programs tailored to the needs of communities of color and LGBTQ+ youth.
- Expanding the state’s behavioral health workforce, with a focus on cultural and linguistic proficiency, and a comprehensive public education campaign to make Californians aware of these life-saving services also will be critical to the initiative’s success.
Behavioral health providers are working tirelessly to serve Californians pummeled by the pandemic’s economic and social consequences. We know California could have chosen the easy route by touting minor improvements designed to patch gaps in service after the pandemic. Instead, Governor Newsom launched, and legislators supported, a visionary initiative to uplift the youngest members of our state. Californians can be proud our state will soon help each of them reach their greatest potential. This bold step reflects our governor’s compassion, commitment and courage, and it deserves our applause.
Chris Stoner-Mertz, LCSW, is CEO of California Alliance of Child and Family Services.
Le Ondra Clark Harvey, Ph.D., is CEO of California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies.
Leticia Galyean, LCSW, is president and CEO Seneca Family of Agencies.