California Has Reopened. Support for Mental Health Conditions and Substance Use Disorders Must Ramp Up for Californians

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.

Policymakers 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:

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.

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.

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