Children’s access to Mental Health Services is top priority

An illustration of a son and his father facing the future. Image: Jacob-09)

We see the headlines every day, and those of us with children see it at home: There is a mental health crisis happening among our kids.

An increasing number of children report feeling sad, hopeless, and, in the most extreme cases, suicidal.  We cannot wait any longer to ensure every child has the behavioral health support they need, regardless of how they receive their health care coverage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children’s mental health–related emergency department visits increased and remained elevated during the pandemic.

Counties and schools must act, because private health plans have shown they can’t adequately handle the need.

Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively throughout the pandemic. Even with the pandemic waning, the world continues to be a stressful place for a lot of children. Behavioral health, mental wellness and support will be crucial for this generation of students.

As a classroom teacher serving in the Legislature, I know kids won’t get back precious years of their lives or classroom time lost to mental health challenges. That’s why I introduced legislation — now on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk — to expand early detection of behavioral health challenges and connect youth with support.

Where I live in Southern California, Sycamores, a social services non-profit partners with six school districts and five charter school groups to provide these critical services to students enrolled in Medi-Cal on over 30 school campuses.

Under AB 552, this successful model could be expanded, with counties and local non-profits providing brief initial intervention services and being reimbursed by either Medi-Cal or private insurers at the same rate. Counties and schools must act, because private health plans have shown they can’t adequately handle the need.

Be it workforce issues, or a lack of coverage, for too many California children, care is difficult to access.

AB 552 would create the Integrated School-Based Behavioral Health Partnership Program encouraging local educational agencies (LEAs) and county behavioral health agencies to collaborate on providing on-school campus services for students, at the earliest onset of a behavioral health condition.

Quality behavioral health services for youth are already on many school campuses, but in most cases are limited to children served by Medi-Cal, about two in five students.  The distinction between students with private insurance and those with Medi-Cal is critical.

It’s not clear what services children with private insurance would be able to access via school-based programs.

California has done well making sure children on Medi-Cal receive comprehensive behavioral health support. But more than half of the under-18 population are covered by private insurance, making them ineligible for current school-based programs. Unfortunately, schools are more inclined to bring behavioral health professionals on campus only in cases where all students can be served.

Responding to the unprecedented crisis facing our youth, Gov. Newsom announced a $4 billion Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative last year.  However, the program within the initiative that will address the issues from AB 552 won’t begin until 2024. And it’s not clear what services children with private insurance would be able to access via school-based programs. Governor Newsom must sign this bill into law.

Insights gained from the past have enabled California to implement comprehensive educational and support programs for our students. Public-private partnerships in healthcare delivery have proven to offer opportunities for improvements in health service access and provide a chance for our school districts to address the on-going challenge of providing their students with the mental health services that they need.

If we are serious about ensuring California students receive the support necessary to succeed in their education, then we must make sure school districts can be flexible in their approach to achieving that goal.

Editors: Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) represents the 65th Assembly  District in the state Legislature.

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