New California Health Interview Survey data highlight urgent need for mental health services, challenges in accessing medical care

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 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 (CHIS), the nation’s largest state health survey. 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 A. Ponce, PhD, MPP, UCLA CHPR director and CHIS principal investigator. “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:

Adverse Childhood Experiences 

  • ​67.3% California adults reported having at least one adverse childhood experience — defined as traumatic events involving serious physical injury or psychological, emotional or sexual abuse before the age of 18 — and 1 in 5 (21.2%) report having experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences.