Opinion: Congress Must Act to Address California’s Mental Health and Substance Use Crises

Volunteers distribute Naloxone kits in paper bags to homeless people in Civic Center Plaza, Santa Ana. Substance use has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by iStock/pandapix

A public health crisis in California isn’t getting enough attention: An estimated 9,886 Californians lost their lives to overdose between January 2020 and January 2021, a 50 percent increase from the previous year. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for people under 34 in our state, and COVID-19 has added to the mental health challenges of Californians. 

Coming out of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to save lives by extending and expanding federal resources that support community mental health and substance use services; if Congress doesn’t act soon, we’ll lose some of our most promising models of treatment. 

California is now home to 11 Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs), non-profit clinics selected by the federal government for a pilot program delivering comprehensive services to Californians with intensive primary care, mental health and substance use needs. 

Access to additional federal dollars matters for these clinics and the clients they serve. Through the CCBHC program, clinics have increased access to medication-assisted treatment, the gold standard for opioid use disorder care that is proven to reduce risk of overdose and death. CCBHCs offer reduced wait times for appointments and hire and train more staff to treat and respond to each community’s unique needs.

When COVID-19 threatened disruptions in care, participation as a CCBHC enabled HealthRIGHT 360 in Los Angeles to get clients connected to its services through telehealth more rapidly than non-CCBHC providers. The clinic is partnering with law enforcement agencies and the courts to help clients reentering society, providing the mental health and substance use support they need to avoid returning to the justice system. Among the important suicide prevention strategies the clinic offers, robust crisis care services mean clients can reach out at any time for support.

In Northern California, non-profit CCBHC Uplift Family Services partners with School Health Clinics of Santa Clara County and adult behavioral health agency Pacific Clinics to ensure client’s behavioral health conditions are treated alongside physical health. When a 14-year-old youth sought treatment for an earache, the routine mental health screening revealed she had a plan to die by suicide. The program delivered immediate crisis response and she had an appointment with a mental health counselor the next day.

CCBHCs not only provide more comprehensive and round-the-clock services, but they also help divert patients from unnecessary emergency room visits that can often end up costing thousands of dollars. This helps reduce the burden on California hospital staff, who are facing yet another COVID-19 surge courtesy of the Delta variant.

But right now, the federal grants providing expanded services are set to run out as soon as next year.

Time is running out for Congress to pass the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act,   legislation that supports and expands the CCBHC program. California’s congressmembers must work hard to ensure this legislation passes so any California clinic or behavioral health agency could apply to become a CCBHC. 

Delivering access to high-quality mental health and substance use treatment services in every California community was imperative before COVID-19. Now, it is a life-saving opportunity we can’t miss.

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.

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