How Blue Shield of California is Supporting Youth Mental Health

“[BlueSky is] a new model of collaboration between school districts, nonprofit organizations, and a managed care plan that addresses mental health needs of youth in the communities that we serve and gives them tools to develop resilience, regardless of insurance eligibility.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health illnesses for children nationwide, research points to an increasing prevalence of adolescent mental health illness even prior to the pandemic. From 2008 to 2018, depression increased by nearly twofold for children ages 12-17. In California, mental illness is the number 1 reason that children are hospitalized.

As the largest payer of mental health services in the U.S., Medicaid serves as a major source of coverage for adolescents (age 12-17) with significant mental health conditions, covering one in five adolescents who have experienced a major depressive episode. With roughly 40% of children in California covered by Medicaid or “Medi-Cal”, the program provides vital access to the care and services needed to help address children’s mental health.

Given half of all lifetime cases of mental illness or substance abuse begin by age 14, ensuring that mental health conditions are addressed as early as possible is a significant part of healthy development for children and youth. For many children, schools often serve as one of the first places where mental health conditions are identified and diagnosed, in large part due to Medi-Cal’s Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) benefit.

Blue Shield of California is helping increase access, awareness, and advocacy for mental health support for California youth through their BlueSky Initiative. Launched in 2019, the BlueSky Initiative boosts access to mental health support for youth in two ways: funding school and community programs, and providing educational resources for educators and parents.

BlueSky’s program includes providing access to clinicians in middle and high schools, training educators to spot signs of mental health issues, empowering students with culturally affirming mental health support resources, and supporting career development for professionals pursuing careers in mental health. In just a few years, BlueSky has increased access to mental health across 20 middle and high schools in California — conducting nearly 8,000 individual, family and group sessions. In the 2020-2021 school year, participating students reported increases in their affective strengths (22%), interpersonal strengths (21%), and school functioning (11%).

Additionally, in September 2021, BlueSky announced a new contribution of $1 million to help the California Department of Education expand access to mental health services even further, including tailoring mental health care to be more affirming of the experiences of BIPOC youth (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). This funding will also help support the creation of a statewide Medi-Cal technical assistance guide that Local Education Agencies can leverage to help more families access mental and behavioral health benefits.

Blue Shield Promise President and CEO Kristen Cerf said, “[BlueSky is] a new model of collaboration between school districts, nonprofit organizations, and a managed care plan that addresses mental health needs of youth in the communities that we serve and gives them tools to develop resilience, regardless of insurance eligibility.” 

These critical mental health innovations resulted in Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan, a subsidiary of Blue Shield of California, being awarded the 2021 Health Equity Award from the California Department of Health Care Services for its BlueSky initiative.

By taking important steps to strengthen youth well-being and combat the rising prevalence of youth mental health conditions, Blue Shield of California is helping support and develop resilient communities across the state so that the next generation is equipped with a healthy foundation for a lifetime.