SACRAMENTO — During the first week of school closures in San Jose, state Sen. Jim Beall’s office received more than a dozen phone calls from distressed parents and caregivers.
The problem: They couldn’t get free lunches because school district rules required children be present to receive a meal. A grandmother caring for at least seven children couldn’t fit them all in her car. One parent had a sick child who needed to stay at home, and another was unable to bring her child, who has disabilities, to wait in the drive-thru lunch line.
Beall’s staff helped resolve their predicaments by calling the school districts and the schools to mediate. And while lunch line challenges alone might seem minor, Californians are contending with unexpected unemployment, social isolation and anxiety about the virus. All of those added stressors could lead to — or exacerbate — mental health problems as Californians cope with COVID-19, said the Democrat from San Jose.
As the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health, Beall is one of the most outspoken advocates for mental health in the state legislature. He believes Californians’ mental health needs are more acute than ever and ought to be addressed — even in the face of deep state budget cuts.
“He’s been a unique voice and champion who is not afraid to take an unpopular stand because it’s the right thing to do,” said Michelle Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California. “We are in a precarious moment right now.”
But whether state lawmakers will have the appetite — or funding — to enact mental health reform this year is unclear. The focus is unquestionably on responding to the novel coronavirus.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is scaling back his own plans to expand health care. His budget advisers told lawmakers on April 16 the state will spend at least $7 billion to respond to the pandemic. And state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins has asked lawmakers to focus on bills related to the outbreak.
Beall talked to California Healthline’s Samantha Young about why he believes mental health care must remain a priority. He and state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) have said they intend to pursue companion bills creating state parity laws, which would require health plans in California to provide mental health care benefits on par with medical benefits. Their previous attempts have failed, in part because of opposition from the health insurance industry.
Beall also wants the state to certify mental health peer-support specialists, people who rely on their own experiences to help others in treatment.
By Samantha Young, Kaiser Health News (April 28, 2020)