Pandemic-related disparities persist, California Health Interview Survey finds

Key takeaways:

  • The percentage of California young adults who say they have thought about comitting suicide is 30.5%, a significant increase over last year, and more than double the proportion from five years ago.
  • Principal investigator Ninez Ponce says the findings reveal a major unmet need for mental health resources, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The number of 18-to-24-year-olds in California who reported having thought about committing suicide at some point in their lives increased to 30.5% in 2021 from 23.9% in 2020 — the year COVID-19 emerged in the U.S. — according to new data published by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

    Those figures represent a dramatic increase from just five years ago. The research center’s 2016 survey found that 14.1% of California’s young adults said they had experienced thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives.

    The 2021 data is from the latest California Health Interview Survey, the nation’s largest annual health survey on a single state. The survey highlights the consequences of the pandemic in terms of people’s mental health and their ability to afford or access needed health care.

    In the study, 36.7% of respondents age 13 to 17 said they needed help for emotional or mental health problems, but 26.2% of them did not receive any counseling in the past year.

    "There is an urgent need for resources that will aid Californians through a crisis that’s dramatically affecting people’s mental health," said Ninez Ponce, director of the center and principal investigator of the California Health Interview Survey. "Our findings show that more people are experiencing serious psychological distress, more people are in need of professional help and more people are reporting moderate or severe impairment in their work, social lives, relationships and daily activities. Our hope is that these data will be used by policymakers and the public to help improve the Californians’ health."

    The survey covers more than 100 other topics on Californians’ physical and mental health, including new-for-2021 questions on traumatic childhood experiences, encounters with police, climate change and gun violence.

    Among the other findings:

    The percentage of California adults who reported having had at least one traumatic childhood event was 67.3%.

    21.2% of those respondents reported having experienced four or more instances involving serious physical injury or psychological, emotional or sexual abuse before the age of 18. Of that group, 32.3% said they had serious psychological distress during the past year. By comparison, 7.8% of adults who reported that they had never had a traumatic childhood event said they experienced serious psychological distress in the previous 12 months.

    Of adults who had at least four traumatic childhood events, 42.1% said they needed professional help in the past 12 months for emotional or mental health problems or for the use of alcohol or drugs (compared with 12.7% of adults who had not had such experiences).

    77.1% of Black or African American adults and 90.1% of American Indian and Alaska Native adults said they had traumatic childhood experiences; both figures are well above the statewide average for all racial and ethnic groups.

    While 21.5% of all California adults reported having been stopped at least once by police in the past three years, the percentage was significantly higher, 36.4%, among Black or African American adults.

    25.4% of California adults who had been stopped by the police in the past three years said they experienced serious psychological distress in the past year, compared with 18.6% of all adults who experienced serious psychological distress in the past 12 months.

    24.9% of those who have ever had a member of their household get arrested said they experienced serious psychological distress during the past year.

    Tracing the health effects of climate change, the researchers found that 44.8% of adults said they had experienced an extreme weather-related event in the prior two years. Survey participants cited extreme heat waves, flooding, wildfires, smoke from wildfires and power shutoffs to prevent wildfires.

    16.6% of those living in the 25-county Northern California/Sierra region said their physical health was affected by extreme weather-related events. By comparison, 11.7% of adults in the Bay Area, 11.1% in the Sacramento area, 9.3% in the Central Coast, 9.0% in the San Joaquin Valley, 4.6% in greater Los Angeles and 4.5% in other Southern California counties said their physical health was affected.

    23.9% of adults in the 25-county Northern California/Sierra region reported that these extreme weather-related events affected their mental health, compared with 17.1% in the Bay Area, 15.7% in the Central Coast, 11.9% in the Sacramento area, 7.8% in the San Joaquin Valley, 5.7% in greater Los Angeles and 5.5% in other Southern California counties.

    The 2021 survey includes responses from 24,453 adults, 1,169 teens and 4,067 children. Children’s survey response were obtained through their parents.

    "As the largest and most diverse state, California is often looked at as a model that strives toward health equity," said Todd Hughes, director of the California Health Interview Survey. "However, the data show there is still a need to address some of the inequities in California that have been magnified since the start of the pandemic."

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