Children’s mental health care shouldn’t be a luxury in California

By Janis Lambert Connallon

April 18, 2018

Every child in California is entitled to mental health services, yet 80% of our state’s children who need mental health services, do not receive them. Every child, in every playground or classroom in California, is eligible for health insurance. Approximately 97% are enrolled in Medi-Cal, Covered California or private insurance--and with mental health parity, every child should be able to receive mental health care services. However, children can get lost between mental health providers at their school or their health plan. It can be difficult for families to know where to go to obtain services, and it is difficult for providers to coordinate services. Children and families are not getting what they need from our systems. We are failing children by allowing their continued suffering and, we are undermining the health of California’s future workforce because untreated childhood mental illness leads to adult mental and physical illness and disability.

Children’s Defense Fund-California is supporting SB 1004 introduced by Sen. Weiner (D-San Francisco) and Moorlach (R-Irvine), and sponsored by the Steinberg Institute, to ensure that counties prioritize prevention and early intervention services for children and youth. SB 1004 will require counties to develop programs aimed at treating childhood trauma in vulnerable communities; early identification and treatment of psychosis and mood disorders in youth or young adults; or college mental health services. This legislation will help California reach more children and youth with the services they need to grow up mentally and physically healthy.

The crisis in children’s mental health access is happening now, just as we are we learning from neuroscientists the long-term ramifications of not recognizing and treating mental illness. When childhood trauma is left untreated, children can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and hypervigilance--making learning in a traditional school environment especially challenging. Asking a student who rarely feels physically or emotionally safe to sit quietly and read or learn algebra, or manage conflict is a lot to ask. A child with four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACES) is thirty-two times more likely to have a learning or behavior problem.

Untreated childhood trauma also plays a significant role in harming long-term physical health. Exposure and lack of treatment for adverse childhood events increases the risk for 7 out of 10 leading causes of death in adults. 30-40% of youth who are exposed to community violence develop PTSD. Individuals who experienced 6 or more ACEs have a shorter life expectancy by 20 years compared to those with none. Mental health makes up 13% of total discharges in hospitals for children, making it the biggest reason California children are hospitalized.²

SB 1004 will also improve early diagnosis and treatment of psychosis and mood disorders which affects neural connectivity and will cause structural changes in the brain if left untreated. Early intervention increases the likelihood of recovery. Undiagnosed psychosis in adolescence can affect the ability to establish and maintain relationships, achieve independence from family, acquire independent living skills, and prepare for productive work. Early mood disorders also increase the risks of dropping out of school and teen pregnancy. However, early intervention enables recovery and improves the outcomes of treatment. Early intervention also prevents disease progression.

SB 1004 will standardize prevention and early intervention across California and help get services to children that need them. We need to do better for our children, and SB 1004 is an important step in identifying, preventing and intervening to improve mental health and the delivery of services to children and youth.