SACRAMENTO – With the stress and economic fallout from the COVID-19 emergency escalating mental hardships among millions of Californians, the Assembly Health Committee, approved on Monday, May 18, a unanimous bipartisan vote on a bill written by Assemblyman James C. Ramos (D-Highland) to create a statewide Office of Suicide Prevention.

“California and the world have drastically changed since I introduced AB 2112 in early February,“ Ramos said. “Before the pandemic began its path of destruction, the state had already seen in 2017 more than 4,300 violent deaths caused by suicide and 34,371 emergency room visits linked to suicide attempts. Four months later, California and the nation are facing huge spikes in calls to mental health hotlines. More than ever, the state needs a focused, coordinated, forward looking approach to suicide prevention.“

Among other tasks, the state Office of Suicide Prevention would be charged with the following:

* Providing strategic guidance to statewide and regional partners regarding best prevention practices;

* Requiring the new office to focus resources on highest risk groups such as youth, Native American youth, older adults, veterans, and LGBTQ people;

* Conducting state evaluations of regional and state suicide prevention policies;

* Reviewing data to identify opportunities to reduce suicide, including documenting aborted suicide attempts and crisis service interventions;

* Marshalling the insights and energy of medical professionals, scientists, public health experts and others to address the crisis;

* Disseminating information to achieve statewide progress, including coordinated, culturally appropriate campaigns to reach populations with high suicide rates.

* Reporting to the Legislature on progress in reducing suicide rates.

Ramos cited a news article that reported text messages to the federal government’s disaster distress hotline increased by more than 1,000 percent in April. The Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services Center in Los Angeles is one of three centers taking on regional as well as national calls. Ramos said that in February, Hirsch took 22 calls on its suicide and disaster help lines related to coronavirus. In March, calls had leaped to 1,800.

“These numbers represent the people we know about; we know that many more individuals do not reach out for help. Such statistics add a new urgency to creating a statewide office to reduce suicide rates,” Ramos said.

He added that even as physical isolation lessens because people can spend more time with loved ones or on the job, the impacts from COVID-19 still pose a threat to the mental health of California residents. Grief from the loss of family members and friends remain after the immediate crisis passes. Also, financial uncertainty will cause an ongoing burden. For example, one news story cited a study of the Great Recession by mental health experts started in 2007. The study found that for every percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, there was about a 1.6 percent increase in the suicide rate.

“Unfortunately, with the crisis we’ve also seen spikes in other mental health related issues that may cause additional increases in thoughts of suicide – substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse.”

Ramos said California’s Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission submitted a report, “Developing a Strategic Statewide Suicide Prevention Plan,“ in December 2019. It recommended that the state establish an Office of Suicide Prevention to create visible, state-level leadership on the dilemma. The commission is a sponsor of AB 2112.

Toby Ewing, executive director of the commission said, “Research does suggest the number of lives lost to suicide will increase as a result of COVID-19, yet results of the commission’s work on the State’s Suicide Prevention Plan also show that lives can be saved.” He also said, “Putting in place the state-level leadership to support our counties, school districts, private sector and community-based partners is foundational for the work that needs to be done.”

Christine Stoner-Mertz, CEO of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, stressed the current danger to young people. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and worsened California’s alarming epidemic of youth suicide, the second most prevalent cause of death for adolescents,” Stoner said. “In these times, one thing is certain: California must commit to strengthen suicide prevention for youth who will face even greater challenges due to the widespread and grave social and economic disruptions they’re facing.”

Ramos is especially concerned about youth. In an April op-ed, he wrote: “COVID-19 poses new challenges for youth because it has eroded the structure and stability of school life. Temporarily absent are beloved teachers, other campus adults and friends who help sustain troubled students. Cherished symbols of passage into adulthood such as proms and graduations may be eliminated or minimized. These milestones, minor to adults, are occasions of self-definition, joy and socialization to young people – most especially for those lacking necessary support systems.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24, according to a 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Also the CDC released 1991-2017 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data that reported that one in six high school students stated they seriously considered ending their lives and more than one in 12 reported attempted suicide. “In 2014, 3,575 children were hospitalized for non-fatal self-inflicted injuries among children and youth ages 5 to 20 in California. That is heart breaking,” Ramos said. “We can’t let those numbers stand. These children are dear to their families, classmates and friends.”

The bill will now go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Assemblyman James Ramos represents the 40th Assembly district which includes Highland, Loma Linda, Mentone, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, and San Bernardino.

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