California has an opportunity to set a generation on a path to a lifetime of mental wellness, but there is much work to do.
By Karen Larsen, Special to CalMatters
Karen Larsen is the CEO of the Steinberg Institute, a Sacramento nonprofit dedicated to advancing sound mental health policy in California.
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If you want to understand the seriousness of the crisis facing California’s kids, just ask the team running Fresno County’s “All 4 Youth” mental health program.
When students returned to school last fall, mental health referrals doubled. The list of concerns was long: suicidal thoughts, disciplinary challenges, depression, anxiety. Across California, masks are now coming off, but the effects of unprecedented isolation, life disruption and the loss of loved ones linger.
Our kids are crying out for help. Do we hear them?
Mental Health America ranks California 33rd for children’s mental health. Many factors contribute to this failing ranking, but near the top of the list is a critical shortage of mental health professionals for California’s kids. Right now, there are just over 1,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists in a state with more than 8 million youths.
California’s underserved populations and rural areas are suffering the most, with severely limited access to help in places like the Central Valley and rural Northern California. There are no hospital psychiatric beds for children in 42 of California’s 58 counties and zero beds north of Sacramento.
Back in Fresno County, a 2020 report found only one psychiatrist for just over 10,000 people.
That’s why innovative approaches are critical. A partnership between the Fresno County Office of Education and the county behavioral health department, “All 4 Youth” provides school-based services for people up to 22 years old. Utilizing state Mental Health Student Services Act dollars, matched by school district investments, the program provides prevention and early intervention services for youths in their communities and schools throughout the county. The effort includes mental health assessments and therapy from licensed clinicians for parents and kids.
Right now only a handful of California school districts and counties partner to leverage available funds for mental health services. At this critical time, leaving money on the table that could help get more resources for kids is a mistake.
In Stanislaus County, educators have embraced technology to address student mental health needs. Called “The Lifeguard Initiative,” the voluntary program gives students an opportunity to identify core values and create growth goals. Students check in daily using a website or phone app to gauge their well-being. Feeling great? Tap the happy emoji. Less than great? Sad emoji. The data helps teachers get a better sense of how students feel on any given day. It also provides students with instant supportive help if needed.
This approach gets students thinking and communicating about their mental health. Identifying personal core values helps them navigate their emotions better when faced with stressful situations. Identifying mental illness early is critical to preventing worsening symptoms throughout life. Seventy-five percent of mental health challenges begin before age 25.
We should celebrate these schools rising to the challenge, but the state’s shortage of behavioral health workers must be addressed. Today, 31 counties with a high need for mental health services report a shortage. This year, the Steinberg Institute is sponsoring legislation — Senate Bill 964, introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco — taking on the workforce shortage with innovative ideas and a holistic approach.
There is reason to be hopeful. Awareness of the mental health crisis is translating into action in Sacramento. Last year, lawmakers approved Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $4.4 billion Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, bringing unprecedented resources to the challenge. In addition, the Mental Health Student Services Act provides $40 million one-time funding and $10 million ongoing funding for partnerships between county behavioral health departments and schools.
We stand on the precipice of the greatest opportunity in our lifetimes to address our children’s mental health. If we can leverage the private and public, federal, state and local money available, we can serve every student in need. The funding is there. We now need the courage to act boldly.
Our kids are counting on us.