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It's Time for California to Update Mental Health Parity Laws

Imagine going to the doctor one day for an illness that started off pretty mild, manageable but eventually became unbearable, a pain in your stomach, or rapid heartbeats or headaches that turned into a cancer diagnosis. Imagine going to the doctor and being told your insurance doesn’t cover that type of cancer or recognize the severity. Imagine never having your mental health validated or recognized by the health system and insurance companies.

This is what it feels like to live every day with varying mental illnesses, but never receiving recognition or treatment because they aren’t equivalent to physical health. In our society and culture we haven’t created spaces to express these emotions, struggles and vulnerabilities that accompany mental illness and substance use. The loneliness, shame, fear and range of feelings that come with mental illness and substance use can be debilitating. Mental health is awash in stigmas and perceptions equating mental illness to weakness, in-definable pain, addiction, laziness, feeling sad, fluctuating moods, endless worrying. It’s about time mental health and substance use receives the same recognition as any other illness.

California has the highest rate of unmet mental health treatment needs in the country.” Looking closer at the mental health crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, massive racial disparities are apparent. Roughly four in 10 Black, Latino or mixed race people report symptoms of anxiety or depression at above-average rates.

According to the Center for American Progress, “People with mental health disabilities face disproportionately high rates of poverty, discrimination, and criminalization.”  Young people also face higher rates of anxiety and depression since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These disparities are crucial to highlight in promoting a more equitable mental health system.

California has stepped up as a leader on mental health legislation and updating old parity laws that continue to discriminate against certain illnesses. In 2020 Senate Bill 855, which was written by Scott Weiner, expanded the requirements for covering mental illnesses and substance use. SB 855 expands mental health parity protections in California and closes some of the gaps that contribute to the mental health crisis and imbalances. This bill expands the definitions of mental illnesses and includes substance use disorders, while also standardizing how health insurance companies can make decisions about treatment and coverage. Alongside California’s strides to improve mental health, the country has seen higher rates of mental health and substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nationally mental health issues have reached a breaking point amidst a global pandemic with increased isolation and trigger points exacerbating symptoms. Data by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety have more than tripled since the coronavirus pandemic began with people of color being disproportionately affected. According to KFF, a leader in health policy analysis, on average more than one in three adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety and or depressive disorder since May 2020. In comparison, from January to June 2019 approximately one in ten adults reported symptoms of anxiety and or depressive disorder. California also has a higher percentage of people with symptoms of anxiety or depression at 41.2 percent compared to 37.7 percent in the US. More than 40 states have seen increases in opioid and other drug-related overdose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even with this bill being passed and one of the first states to improve mental health parity laws, so much more needs to be done: more education, more dialogue and communication about the mental health crises; analyzing how different cultures address mental health; highlighting racial disparities and the more severe impacts of mental health and substance use on minority communities; listening to those in pain without judgment or pity, but with openness and support.

A fellow advocate of mine working with young people in mental health said advocacy is about love and relationships. In order to address the mental health crisis we need to stop categorizing people with mental illness as inferior. These perceptions and policies confine people to these identities and boxes based on an illness they can’t control. We need to stop the division and the dated stigmas; mental health advocacy needs to be more about love and acceptance in order to bring people back into a feeling of wholeness and connection.

I hope to live in a world of acceptance, openness and supporting vulnerability when opening a dialogue for mental health conditions and substance use disorders. I hope stigmas become shattered and people start to recognize the importance of shedding light on these issues. I hope as legislation becomes more frequent in balancing mental health on the same parallels as physical health, that our world becomes more accepting and inclusive about mental illness.

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