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Youth mental health investments need to be systemic and lasting, panel says

California has made historic investments in children’s mental health recently, but those efforts won’t result in long-term improvements unless they’re streamlined, accelerated and targeted to specific groups of students, according to a panel of experts convened by the Public Policy Institute of California on Wednesday.

“We talk about the youth mental health crisis, but we really need to treat this like a crisis,” said Lishaun Francis, director of behavioral health at the advocacy group Children Now. The state needs to move faster with funding initiatives, set higher expectations and remove barriers to mental health care – namely, by pressuring private insurers to improve their mental health coverage, she said.

Responding to the Youth Mental Health Crisis” offers a summary of the current mental health challenges children face, with a focus on the pandemic and school shootings, as well as perspectives on school, government and community responses.

Youth mental health was declining before the pandemic and dropped steeply when school campuses closed in March 2020. Isolation, anxiety, grief and depression compounded for many students, resulting in a 31% uptick in suicide attempts from 2019 to 2020, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost half of high school students said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, the CDC reported.

California has poured billions into programs to help young people through these difficult times. Much of it falls under the umbrella of the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative. The $4.4 billion effort expands access to mental health services, especially for children who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and other stressful conditions such as racism and inequality.

Despite the urgency, lasting changes are not going to happen overnight, said Melissa Stafford Jones, the initiative’s director.

“These are long-term issues. We need to make changes to the entire system because the system we have now is producing the inequitable results we see today,” Jones said. “There are no quick fixes.”

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho underscored the importance of partnering with community agencies, which are already doing on-the-ground work and have a better idea of the unique needs of specific LAUSD student groups.

“There’s a trust factor,” he said. “We need different approaches for different communities. It can’t be a crusader’s journey, a savior’s journey. … The answers reside within the agencies that already serve these communities.”

At the state level, efforts are underway to train more mental health workers, streamline mental health services between different agencies and simplify the mental health billing process for Medi-Cal. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget also calls for investments in suicide prevention and infant and toddler programs, both of which panelists expect to have a positive impact on youth mental health.

“People are willing to roll their sleeves up and do the hard work. And youth themselves are incredibly knowledgeable about their own health and well-being. They’re good at advocating for themselves,” Jones said. “That gives me hope.”