PRESS RELEASE: California Must Prepare for Additional Deaths as Health Committee Proposes to Cut Mental Health Programs

May 21, 2020

California Must Prepare for 21,000 Additional Deaths as Health Committee Neglects to Hear Life Saving Mental Health Legislation and May Revise Proposes to Cut Mental Health Programs


California is Poorly Equipped to Weather the Impending Mental Health Crisis


There is an epidemic within a pandemic, and it’s on the rise in California. Daily doses of isolation, fear, and anxiety have fueled a mental health crisis that is about to erupt. We were not ready for the havoc that the Coronavirus brought on our state. Will we learn from our past mistakes and make changes desperately needed to avoid the mental health crisis experts are predicting?


A study of the Great Recession[1] that began in late 2007 found that for every one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, there was about a 1.6 percent increase in the suicide rate.”[2] In California, that translates to potentially 21,000 deaths from drug overdoses and suicide.[3] "The two most replicated, robust factors linked to suicide are economic change — downturn — and social disconnection," says Dr. Roger McIntyre, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. And both factors, he notes, are major hallmarks of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Furthermore, a survey in late March found that one in four adults reported binge drinking in the past week; 1 in 5 reported taking prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, and 1 in 7 reported using illicit drugs. During one week in mid-March, alcohol sales increased by 55 percent. California calls to suicide prevention lines were up 40 percent in March, people citing job worries and inability to attend AA meetings, among other stressors. Calls to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s disaster distress hotline increased 891 percent from March 2019 to March 2020.


The Senate Health Committee chose not to hear a bill that would directly help those suffering from substance use disorder, SB 854 (Beall).  SB 854 would remove insurance barriers to the gold standard treatment for addiction, Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) including prohibiting preauthorization for these effective drugs. Preauthorization requires doctors to get approval from insurance plans before prescribing life-saving prescriptions or treatments at times delaying and/or denying treatment. The American Medical Association recently called for prohibiting prior authorization for MAT as a response to COVID-19.[4] Again, we failed to act.

California is severely neglecting its obligation to prepare for the mental health crisis. No state funds were directly allocated for behavioral health. The May Revise not only doesn’t add any specific funding for behavioral health, but it also proposes to eliminate programs that will be urgently needed as we face the trauma of this crisis, such as maternal mental health, screenings for substance use disorder and crisis response for foster families.

The consequences of this neglect will hit communities of color hardest. In a recent policy brief, SAMHSA asserts, “The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed deep-seated inequities in health care for communities of color and amplifies social and economic factors that contribute to poor health outcomes. Recent news reports indicate that the pandemic disproportionately impacts communities of color compounding longstanding racial disparities.” [5]

We have opportunities to plan proactively. I am relieved that SB 803 (Beall), which will bolster the mental health workforce by certifying Peer Support Specialists, was passed by the Senate Health Committee. SAMHSA’s report recommends the deployment of peers to reduce disparities and help people access treatment. Peers “are critical for outreach, engagement, and

linking Blacks and Latinos with mental and substance-use disorders to treatment.”


We need to do much more. If California continues to ignore mental health, we will not come out stronger.