Growing up is tough, and today’s youth are faced with challenges and pressures unheard of a generation ago. Like their peers across the country, California’s 9.2 million kids are experiencing a steady rise in incidents of trauma, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Whether caused by academic or social demands, social media, bullying, natural disasters, school shootings and other violence, family substance abuse or the stresses of poverty, an alarming and growing number of youth are experiencing declining mental health and widespread instances of trauma. Their future health and well-being are at risk.
The 2020 California Children’s Report Card, which graded behavioral health as a “D,” noted mental illness is the leading cause of youth hospitalization in the state. The report card also awarded the state a “C-” in preventing trauma and supporting healing. Adverse childhood experiences (ACE), which are greatly influenced by race, sexual orientation, education level, income and employment status, have been linked to chronic health conditions, creating lasting impacts on physical and behavioral health.
Seeing opportunities to better meet the needs of California’s struggling youth, Blue Shield of California and Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan (Blue Shield Promise) developed a series of programs and initiatives aimed at building resiliency and improving mental health.
Using art to address trauma
A series of high profile crimes across parts of Los Angeles County, including the killing of rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle, shocked communities and highlighted the need for intervention among neighborhood youth. Children and teens in the area were facing increased incidents of trauma; losing friends, family and community members to gun violence, other crimes and incarceration, often facing these incidents without access to any behavioral health assistance to help them recover. In these communities, where violent crime is not uncommon and poverty compounds everyday stressors, art became part of the answer.
Partnering with nonprofit organizations Boys & Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles and Wellnest, Blue Shield Promise developed a community art resiliency program to give young people the opportunity to use creativity to share feelings and talk about difficult issues. The eight-week program brought together community youth, local artist Moses Ball and social workers in a safe, nurturing space that culminated with the creation of an inspirational mural. Its success led to expansion of youth resiliency programs in Los Angeles and new partnerships in San Diego County. Similar programs will also be implemented in all 14 Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan and L.A. Care Health Plan Community Resource Centers markets. The resource centers offer no-cost classes aimed at improving health and well-being. On-site care management is also available for health plan members as well as free child care when parents attend a class.
Enhancing access to care in school
Research has shown that access to a school-based counselor can make a significant difference in high schoolers’ aspirations and the likelihood a student will enroll in post-secondary education. In California, unmet mental health needs rank among the most pressing concerns for educators. In fact, the American School Counselor Association recommends a 250:1 student to counselor ratio, in California the ratio is more than 750:1.
Launched in late 2019, the Blue Shield of California’s BlueSkySM initiative supports mental health for middle and high school students at 19 schools in Alameda and San Diego counties. The program partners with nonprofits including Wellness Together, the National Alliance on Mental Illness California and DoSomething.org to enhance access, awareness and advocacy to much-needed mental health supports for students. The initiative brings additional mental health clinicians into schools for one on one therapy, and working with the California Department of education, the program is funding the training of thousands of public school teachers and staff in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Additionally, students will be empowered through support for peer-led groups.
The initiative also offers online mental health and resiliency resources for all students. The multi-year commitment initially reaches more than 20,000 students, but the number is expected to grow as more staff are trained. BlueSky will be evaluated by a research team from the University of California, San Francisco’s Phillip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies to determine the impact on student and school-level outcomes.
Providing support during the coronavirus pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has left youth and families with considerable stress. To help them deal with this new reality, Blue Shield of California teamed up with DoSomething.org to launch a three-month campaign as part of their Blue Sky Initiative. The New State of Mind campaign reaches beyond just youth in California and includes text, email and social media activations directed at DoSomething.org’s millions of members across the country encouraging them to share tips and tricks to fight anxiety. In the first few weeks of the campaign, more than 18,000 tips were submitted. These tips will grow into a first-of-its-kind crowdsourced mental health resource to be shared widely.