With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increasing in the state due to a contagious variant of the virus, we are reminded the pandemic is not yet behind us. The road to recovery from the pandemic as well as the economic recession will be long for California children, families, and individuals. And the effects of the past year-plus will continue to be felt, particularly on our mental health and well-being.
Even before the pandemic, millions of Californians were coping with mental health conditions or substance use disorders and too many also confronted challenges in accessing care. In California, nearly 1 in 3 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during a two-week period in late April and early May 2021. Additionally, more than 9,400 Californians died due to drug overdose over a 12-month period ending in January 2021, which represents a 46.7% increase in overdose deaths over the previous year. And this is likely an undercount.
Long after businesses and schools reopen and economic recovery progresses, the work to support Californians’ mental health and well-being must be a priority for state leaders. As policymakers take legislative action over the coming weeks, they have an opportunity to ramp up support for Californians’ mental health and reach people who have historically faced barriers to services and care.
State policymakers have already committed significant investments in behavioral health services in the 2021–22 state budget. Two major proposals include:
- Funding to expand the state’s behavioral health infrastructure, known as the Behavioral Health Continuum Infrastructure Program. Funding would be available over three years for competitive grants to expand the community continuum of behavioral health treatment resources.
- The Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, which aims to transform California’s behavioral health system for all Californians age 25 and younger. The goal of this initiative is to better connect children and youth to behavioral health care.
These investments in our behavioral health system are critical, especially now. Governor Newsom’s proposal to transform the behavioral health system for children and youth would increase access to prevention and early intervention services. Expanding access to behavioral health services helps Californians thrive and it can also reduce hospitalization or even incarceration due to behavioral health conditions.
State policymakers can build on these proposals and further support Californians with behavioral health needs as they consider bills before the September 10 legislative deadline. Efforts to improve behavioral health services should aim to ensure that children, youth, and adults are better connected to a robust set of services that are delivered efficiently and effectively, with the goal of improving Californians’ overall health and quality of life. Policy solutions that promote wellness and recovery include:
- Expanding timely access to behavioral health services, including mental health care and treatment for substance use.
- Eliminating barriers to care, such as through allowing same-day visits for physical and mental health care in community clinics and making telehealth flexibilities a permanent Medi-Cal benefit.
- Promoting mental health and well-being among children and youth by incorporating mental health education in K-12 schools and by ensuring that students have mental health days (i.e. excused absences from school for a mental health issue or appointment).
- Improving emergency response for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis by implementing the national suicide and mental health crisis phone number (988) and system.
- Addressing maternal mortality and maternal mental health conditions, which disproportionately impact Black women and other women of color.
- Bolstering the behavioral health workforce through expanded education and training opportunities, including increasing funding to cover the fees and expenses of those participating in the Peer Support Specialist Certification process.
Policymakers should also prioritize the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ Californians, whose mental health has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, researchers found that about three-fourths of LGBT adults said worry and stress from the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, compared to 49% of non-LGBT adults.
Racial equity implications should be at the forefront of all policy decisions too, including those regarding behavioral health services. Californians of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as well as the recession — losing jobs, income, and becoming ill at higher rates than white Californians. Given the significant toll on their mental health and well-being, many Californians of color must have access to mental health and healing resources.
Bottom line: State policymakers must strengthen behavioral health services with permanent, ongoing support for Californians facing mental health challenges today, and before the next crisis hits.