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Why Does the Central Valley Have A Big Mental Health Problem?


According to a new study of mental health throughout the state, the valley has the highest mental illness rate in California. It also is the region with the fewest mental health professionals.

Statewide around 1 in 20 adults suffer from a serious mental illness. Valley counties score even higher. While 5.1 percent of Fresno adults have a serious mental illness, and 5.7 percent of Kern County residents, that number rises to 6.9 percent in Kings County and 7 percent in Madera County.

Why is mental health such a big problem in the valley, and what can be done to help improve the situation? Two leading researchers joined us on Valley Edition to talk about the study and offer their insights:

  • Sandra Shewry is director of State Health Policy for the California HealthCare Foundation
  • Neal Adams is the Deputy Director of the ​California Institute for Mental Health with the non-profit California HealthCare Foundation.

They offered a variety of explanations, including the link between serious mental illness and poverty. Shewry also suggested that researchers think that in some cases, people with mental illness may be more like to move to rural locations, to return to family or to be more isolated from society.
Both suggested that the San Joaquin Valley's shortage of mental health professionals is a major challenge for the region. The looming expansion of coverage under Obamacare could make that problem worse, as more people seek access to a limited number of providers. That's on top of another new federal law that requires insurance providers to treat mental and physical health coverage at "parity." That means that if a health plan doesn't place a limit on hospitalization for physical health conditions, it must treat mental health conditions the same.

So what are some solutions? Training new mental health professionals takes a long time. Adams suggests efforts to better connect primary care and mental health could pay off and help patients. Adams says that primary care physicians could be better staffed and trained to deal with mental health issues. He cites an effort in Merced County to bring mental health professionals into federally qualified health centers as a model for other San Joaquin Valley counties.

See an interactive map that charts the geographic disparities in mental health in California.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of Valley Public Radio. During his tenure, he's helped lead the station through major programming changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the station's financial health. From 2010-2018 he served as the station's Director of Program Content. In that role, he also served as the host of Valley Edition, and helped launch and grow the station's award-winning local news department. He is a Fresno native and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.
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