Illustration by Chanelle Nibbelink for CalMatters

On the edge: Can California heal its mental health system?

Illustration by Chanelle Nibbelink for CalMatters

Stress. Anxiety. Numbness. Pain.

All of it has been building for years. How could it not?

Climate-change-fueled wildfires. School shootings. Political polarization. Racism. Transphobia. War. A pandemic marked by immeasurable loss.

Some of us find help. Too many of us don’t.

Our state now teeters on a precipice between despair and hope. Often, so do we.

Suicides among Black youth have doubled in recent years. Overdose rates are skyrocketing. As of last fall, 1,700 people were on a waitlist to receive treatment that would help them become competent enough to stand trial. Children’s hospitals report dramatic surges in children arriving with mental health emergencies.

This crisis didn’t develop in a vacuum, but rather reflects decades of failed social policy. Evidence of our failure to care for the most vulnerable can be found on our streets and in our prisons, but also in our schools, our health systems and our neighborhoods.

As Californians, we now face a reckoning: How do we fix a mental health system that has been so broken for so long?

State leaders are voicing their commitment to meaningfully address that question. California passed new parity laws in recent years, aimed at holding insurers accountable for providing mental health services. The federal 988 phone number for mental health emergencies comes online this summer; the state is ramping up its crisis response infrastructure to prepare. Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised unprecedented funding for a statewide initiative to transform mental health care for young people. Attorney General Rob Bonta is investigating the impact of TikTok on children’s mental health.

Our leaders have made promises. At least for now, they have funding.

Will it be enough?

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