Senator Portantino Continues Leadership on Mental Health Issues as Education Bills Head to Governor’s Desk

Monday, September 13 2021

For Immediate Release: September 13, 2021

Contact: Lerna Shirinian, (818) 409-0400

Senator Portantino Continues Leadership on Mental Health Issues as Education Bills Head to Governor’s Desk

Sacramento, California – Senate Bills 14 and 224, authored by State Senator Anthony J. Portantino (D – La Cañada Flintridge), were approved by the Legislature with strong bipartisan support and are headed to the Governor’s desk. SB 14 and 224 address the growing mental health crisis among California’s youth by implementing mental health education and training in schools.

“As students return to school this month, families, teachers, and school administrators are faced with mental health challenges,” stated Senator Portantino. “California is in the midst of a youth behavioral health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The impact of distance education has increased isolation and disengagement.  Depression symptoms and other behavioral health concerns are at an all-time high.  Although the bills don’t nearly go as far as they should and are not what I hoped would be sent to the Governor, I am pleased to be making these important steps to help our students in need,” he concluded.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 1 in 3 California high school students surveyed reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row.  Nearly 1 in 5 reported that they have seriously considered attempting suicide. The Center for Disease Control reports that from March 2020, when the pandemic was declared, to October 2020, emergency department visits were up 24% for children 5 to 11 years of age and 31% for those 12 to 17 years of age, when compared with the same period in 2019.  In the fall of 2020, the number of kids with suicide attempts coming to the emergency room at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital had doubled since the fall of 2019.

SB 14 ensures that student absences for behavioral health concerns are treated the same as excused absences for physical health concerns. In addition to expanding excused absences for students, SB 14 requires the California Department of Education to recommend best practices and evidence-based mental health trainings to address youth behavioral health, including training for teachers, staff, and students on how to recognize, appropriately respond, and seek help for mental health concerns.

The measure is sponsored by a coalition of behavioral health professionals and mental health advocates led by the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies, and supported by the California Behavioral Health Directors Association, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, Disability Rights California, NextGen California, and importantly, the voices of students including GenUP, California Association of School Councils, and California Student Board Member Association.

“The California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA) and our coalition partners applaud the California Legislature for passing SB 14 authored by Senator Anthony Portantino,” said Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey, CBHA’s Chief Executive Officer. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, youth behavioral health needs to be a primary focus to protect and promote the well-being of our students. While this legislation provides a blueprint for training teachers and students with vital knowledge and skills needed to support their students and peers who are experiencing a behavioral health challenge, the work is not done. CBHA looks forward to continuing to work with our elected leaders to equip our school communities with the tools needed to destigmatize behavioral health care and create supportive learning environments critical to our students’ ability to lead healthy and happy lives.”

With no state-mandated health education course at the middle or high school level in California, a vast majority of California students do not receive any instruction in mental health.  Mental health education is one of the best ways to increase awareness and empower students to seek help, while reducing the stigma associated with mental health challenges.

SB 224 would require that local educational agencies and charter schools which currently offer one or more courses in health education to middle or high school students also include mental health content in those courses.  Educational topics would include but are not limited to the overarching themes and core principles of mental health.  SB 224 would also require that the California Department of Education develop a plan to expand mental health instruction in California public schools on or before January 1, 2024.

The measure is supported by a coalition of mental health advocates, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness – California, California Alliance of Child & Family Services, California Association of Student Councils, California Youth Empowerment Network, National Center for Youth Law, and the Children’s Partnership. 

"The National Alliance on Mental Illness-California strongly urges Governor Newsom to sign into law Senate Bill 224,” said Jessica Cruz, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  “Every week, we learn more about the toll that the pandemic has taken on our youth. As the Little Hoover Commission pointed out in their recent report on COVID-19 and Children’s Mental Health, in order to address COVID’s impact on children’s mental health, California needs to center schools as hubs of mental well-being. SB 224 will serve as the map that our children can use to navigate these hubs and access the help that they need. The Governor, who has always offered compassion and support to those who live with a mental illness or developmental disability, will advance the needs of children's mental health with implementing this new law."

"California students are returning to in-person education, and with that return is the stress that still continues from the ongoing pandemic,” said Christine Stoner-Mertz, CEO of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services. "With the impacts of COVID-19 still reeling, we must empower students to seek help while reducing the stigma associated with mental health challenges.  The CA Alliance applauds the State Legislature for supporting SB 224 and recognizing that mental health is critical to overall well-being and academic success.  We now urge Governor Gavin Newsom to prioritize student mental health and sign SB 224!"

SB 14 and SB 224 were introduced earlier this year and reflect the Senator’s dedication to improving mental health outcomes for youth.  The Senator previously authored SB 972, which required schools to print the suicide hotline on student identification cards. Additionally, the Senator dedicated three years to pass SB 328, which pushes back school start times for middle and high schools.