Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed mental health plan for children reminds me of the arsonist who starts a fire, but then calls the fire department to put out the blaze he started.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsom closed California’s public schools for a longer time period than most other states, which caused a massive rise in mental health problems for children, but now he wants to spend billions of tax dollars to address the problem he created.
Back in March 2021, I wrote a briefing paper for the Pacific Research Institute on the importance of re-opening California public schools quickly. A key reason I cited was the impact that school closures were having on children’s mental health.
Even in 2020 and early 2021, it was obvious that children were suffering mental health problems on a shocking scale.
For example, in 2020, the federal Centers for Disease Control, found a 24 percent increase in emergency room mental health visits for children ages 5 to 11 compared to 2019. Among children 12 to 17 years of age, the increase was 31 percent.
Further, the CDC reported that a staggering one in four young people had contemplated suicide in the previous month.
In San Francisco, where Newsom had been mayor, UCSF’s children’s hospital saw a 66 percent increase in the number of suicidal children in the emergency room; a doubling of children hospitalized for eating disorders; and a 75 percent increase in youth seeking mental health services requiring immediate hospitalization.
Dr. Jeanne Noble, associate professor of emergency medicine and director of the UCSF emergency department’s COVID-19 response, said “The medical evidence is clear that keeping public schools closed is catalyzing a mental health crisis among school-aged children in San Francisco.” This children’s mental health crisis was evident all around California.
Yet, despite the clear evidence at the time, Newsom did not require the public schools to open up.
At the start of the pandemic, Newsom issued an order that closed the public schools. Even as it became clear that it was safe to re-open schools, Newsom issued weak voluntary guidelines that advised schools to re-open but carried no requirement that they do so.
The lack of teeth in Newsom’s school reopening policy, according to a 2021 AP/CBS report, stemmed “in part because of the outsized power of the state’s teachers unions.” “Newsom has made it clear that he will not order classrooms to open,” noted the report.
Consequently, California’s public schools stayed closed longer than most other states. As the AP/CBS report noted, as California dithered, even “Democratic-led states of Oregon and Washington” required schools to open.
Now, as a result of Newsom’s lack of will, California’s kids are suffering mental health issues at an alarming rate.
Newsom’s own press release for his mental health plan acknowledges: “Here in California, about one-third of 7th and 9th graders and half of 11th graders experienced chronic sadness in the 2020-2021 school year and it’s estimated that 1 in 10 kids between the ages of 12 and 17 suffered from at least one major depressive episode in the last year. Suicide rates for California youth ages 10 to 18 increased by 20% from 2019 to 2020.”
In order to address the mental health problems that he helped create, Newsom is proposing to spend $4.7 billion to “reimagine mental health and substance abuse services,” including adding 40,000 new mental health workers.
But from where are those new mental health workers going to come?
Currently, mental health agencies say that they cannot get enough personnel to fill existing positions. “Every applicant has 20 different job opportunities right now,” points out Stacey Katz, head of WestCoast Children’s Clinic in Alameda County. So just throwing money at the problem, which is Newsom’s preferred way of addressing anything, will not solve the children’s mental health crisis.
CalMatters notes that even advocates who are sympathetic to the Newsom administration “say the state is playing catch-up, having failed for years to address the spiraling need.”
For his part, Newsom claims that his plan “is premised on a very simple belief: every kid deserves to have their mental health supported” because that is “the California Way—putting our kids first.” That statement is so staggeringly outlandish that it makes one gag.
Newsom knew that children were suffering huge mental health problems two years ago, but he put the interests of his friends in the teachers’ unions over the crying needs of the state’s children. The conflagration of children’s mental health problems that Newsom started cannot be undone by now opening the state spending spigot.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the recent PRI book The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Policies, and Possibilities.