California’s Children’s Emotional Well-Being in Peril

Data across all of California’s 58 counties shows kids are struggling with mental health issues, impacting their overall well-being


Oakland, Calif. – Today Children Now released the 2021 California County Scorecard of Children’s Well-Being, an interactive online data tool that delivers a comprehensive picture of children’s conditions in every one of California’s 58 counties.

This year’s Scorecard finds that children’s mental health and well-being are deteriorating even further. The Scorecard tracks 39 indicators of children’s well-being, from prenatal to the transition to adulthood. The tool measures indicators over time, by race/ethnicity and relative to other counties, when possible, across the domains of early childhood, K-12, health, and child welfare.

Data from the Scorecard, which is from prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, shows that too many children across California have experienced chronic sadness, a disconnection from school, and hunger. Since last March, children and youth are increasingly experiencing stress, social isolation, and serious mental health issues. Further, the learning loss and lack of preventive health care because of the pandemic threatens this entire generation of children.

Children in California, especially children of color and children living in poverty, are struggling and urgently need additional supports,” Children Now President Ted Lempert said. “The data shows that state and local leaders must prioritize children and families, and act decisively to support policies that provide equitable solutions to help kids survive the many crises they’re facing.”

Emotional stressors can begin long before children enter school. Early exposure to trauma and toxic stress derails healthy development, and without adequate intervention can lead to lifelong learning and mental health struggles. Key Scorecard indicators on children’s mental health and well-being include:

  • Health insurance: Ninety-six percent of children had insurance in 2019. While California has been a leader in expanding coverage to all kids and in reducing the rate of uninsured children for the last two decades, there is a concerning and significant uptick in the number of uninsured children, with 35,000 more uninsured children in 2019 versus 2016.
  • School connectedness: In 2019, only 55% of ninth- and 11th-graders reported that they agree or strongly agree that they feel connected at school. Students of color experience greater disconnectedness.
    • For example, 49% of Black students and 53% of Latino students reported feeling connected to their school, compared with 61% of white students. California leaders must promote systemic changes in our schools to significantly improve students’ experiences and ensure a positive school climate.
  • Food insecurity: Fifteen percent of California kids did not have enough to eat in 2018. The data also shows that children in rural counties fared worse than those in urban counties.
    • For example, 31% of children in Imperial, 26% of children in Trinity, and 25% of children in Del Norte did not have enough food to eat or enough nutritious food. Hunger is a serious issue that not only impacts children’s physical health, but their mental health as well. Strengthening food assistance programs will ensure that all children in California have the nutrition they need to be healthy.
  • Chronic sadness: Over a third (35%) of high school students reported feeling chronic sad or hopeless feelings over the past 12 months during 2019. This varies widely by race/ethnicity and by region. Although Black students reported the least chronic sadness statewide, Black and other students of color living in rural counties were impacted the most.
    • For example, Black students in rural counties like Calaveras (76%), Del Norte (67%), and Nevada (65%) reported feeling chronic sadness. The impacts of increased isolation and reduced access to peer and adult support are compounded for children of color, for whom long-standing inequities worsened and racial injustices inflicted more stress, trauma and anxiety. Amid this multitude of crises, the well-being and resilience of students and their families are more important than ever.
  • Suicidality: Close to one in six (16%) high school students in California considered suicide in 2019. This varies widely across the state and by race/ethnicity.
    • Teens in rural counties like Lassen (28%), Modoc (25%) and Mariposa (25%) reported higher numbers. Rural counties are less likely to have access to mental health care and California must do a better job at making mental health services more widely available throughout the state.

“The alarming reality is that kids were not the priority before the pandemic, and they still aren’t. Many children, especially children of color, have lost their security and their connection to school, caring adults, and peers, and as a result are struggling with mental health issues. We need to do a much better job of supporting children’s mental health early and eliminate as many barriers to care as possible. It is critical to our children’s future,” Lempert said.

Why are kids not receiving the mental health services they need?

To date, efforts to improve California children’s behavioral health care have largely focused on treatment, rather than prevention. Investing in preventive and early intervention services is crucial to helping kids before they are in dire need of help – these types of services can help prevent children from experiencing mental health challenges like chronic sadness and suicide ideation.

Currently, California largely provides behavioral health resources in clinical settings, but a broader array of places where children can access supports and services is needed. For example, the state should allocate resources where children are – families, schools and community spaces – so that the appropriate resources reach them. There is also much to be done to educate adults and families about emotional wellness and the effects of toxic stress on kids’ mental health.

While the state has yet to adequately address the mental health crisis kids are facing, there are community programs that are working towards providing kids with the mental health supports they need. At the local level, clinics and communities have developed their own programs to support emotional wellness and have created integrated solutions to local challenges.

“Our hope is that community leaders will use their local Scorecard data to evaluate what is working and what is not, find where there are bright spots and success stories, and inform local policies to improve children’s well-being,” Lempert said.


Webinar on the 2021 CA County Scorecard of Children’s Well-Being

Join Children Now staff on Wednesday, February 3 at 2:00 p.m. on a free webinar to learn more about the Scorecard, and how to use it in your community. Register here.



About Children Now

Children Now is a non-partisan, whole-child research, policy development and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s health and education in California. The organization also leads The Children’s Movement of California, a network of over 4,100 direct service, parent, youth, civil rights, faith-based and community groups dedicated to improving children’s well-being.