As California deals with raging wildfires and unprecedented power shut-offs, residents are grappling with the roller coaster of emotions that often come with personal loss and an uncertain future. The reality is many residents who have been displaced will need mental health and other support services as they try to piece their lives back together.
I’m lucky enough to work for an organization that has stepped up like so many others to support our communities in times of need. In late 2017, when nearly 30 wildfires ignited across Southern California, Kaiser Permanente staff was there, running in harm’s way to evacuate our hospitals and keep patients safe -- all this, despite several Kaiser Permanente physicians and employees losing their homes in the fires. This underscores the dedicated men and women who set aside their own needs every day to make patients their top priority.
Additionally, Kaiser Permanente committed more than $8 million during 2017 and 2018 to support relief and recovery efforts, including mental health services, for survivors of natural disasters such as the Thomas Fire in Southern California. And now -- two years later -- when many are facing a similar situation, Kaiser Permanente has once again announced a $650,000 donation to help wildfire victims in Northern and Southern California.
But we know money alone won’t solve our way out of the growing demand for mental health services. That is why it is disappointing to see the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), who represent our mental health care clinicians, deciding to strike Nov. 11-15 and abandoning wildfire victims and other patients from receiving the care they critically need right now. (However, the strike has now been postponed.)
We know the American health care system has been historically under-resourced for mental health care. In fact, earlier this year, the California Future Health Workforce Commission issued its findings on the growing shortage of health care workers in California, including mental health professionals, in the face of steadily increasing demands for health care services throughout the state. Specifically, the Commission projects that over the next decade California will have 41 percent fewer psychiatrists and 11 percent fewer psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical counselors and social workers than needed.
Yet despite this shortage in California, Kaiser Permanente has increased the number of therapists on its staff by 30 percent since 2015. We have also invested more than $175 million in 2018 to expand and enhance treatment facilities specifically designed to provide mental health care. And, to make care convenient and accessible, the organization has doubled the number of its mental health tele-visits since 2016.
We still have work to do, but as a physician, I can tell you the last thing we should do is walk away from our patients. Kaiser Permanente is committed to prioritizing affordable, high-quality mental health care. We are asking the leadership of NUHW to do the same.
We also encourage our mental health therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists to put their own contract issues aside and be there for their patients. Like 2017, let’s continue running towards the members, patients and communities we serve – not away from them in their time of need.
(Dr. Shellie M. Kahane is a mental health leader for Kaiser Permanente.)