Mental health is a state of psychological well-being in which a child can cope effectively with normal stresses, be productive and contribute to her or his community.
Children’s mental health problems are an important public health issue because of their prevalence, early onset and detrimental impacts on kids, families and communities. Half of all mental health disorders start by age 14 and, in any given year, up to 20% of US children have mental health problems. This translates to approximately 1.8 million California children that suffer from mental health problems each year. Left untreated, children with mental health problems are at greater risk of abusing drugs or alcohol, becoming involved with the criminal justice system, dropping out of school and committing suicide.
Significant adversity experienced in early childhood, such as stress associated with persistent poverty or chronic neglect, can severely impact brain development and lead to decreased mental and physical well-being throughout a child’s lifetime. Even very young children can suffer from serious mental health disorders: over 10% of children, ages 2-5, are diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Parental well-being also directly impacts early childhood mental health, which is of particular importance given that postpartum depression affects 1 in 7 women.
Annually, approximately 37% of California children who need mental health treatment or counseling do not receive services. Young children and those in poverty are even less likely to receive needed services. Despite the fact that early intervention is effective, 60% of California children under age 6 who needed mental health services did not receive them.
To fight the growing, costly and potentially tragic epidemic of poor mental health among children, the state should promote children’s access to mental health care by requiring the health plans that it contracts with to make improvements in mental health service delivery and follow-up, including coordination with primary care networks and providers. California should also work expeditiously with counties to effectively leverage all funds generated by the Mental Health Services Act of 2004, and emphasize early intervention programs.
Mental health programs in California have been drastically cut recently; the state’s spending on mental health was reduced by 21% between 2009 and 2012. Federal health care reform makes mental health services an “essential benefit” in children’s health coverage, which means that children’s access to mental health coverage and care will be substantially increased beginning in 2014.
California’s Early Mental Health Initiative has helped tens of thousands of young children who suffer from mild to moderate mental health challenges through proven school-based prevention and early intervention programs; however, funding for the program was eliminated in the 2012-13 budget and has not been restored since, despite over 20 years of successful implementation and its modest cost of $15 million per year.