California’s disparity in mental health treatment and poverty - Sovereign Health Group
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01-26-16 Category: Mental Health Treatment

According to the United States Census Bureau, California has a population of 38,802,500. Who can resist the year-round sunny weather, mountains and beautiful beaches? The sunshine state, however, is not just full of blondes in bikinis and surfers. There is dark side to the sunny state, and it comes in the form of mental health. California shows wide geographic variation in rates of serious mental illness. With California covering nearly a vast 156,000 square miles, the gaps among poverty levels, mental illnesses and the number of psychiatrists vary widely.


Psychiatrists are the leaders in mental health treatment. They prescribe medications and offer multiple forms of psychotherapy. Unfortunately, their geographical distribution is not uniform in the state of California. Psychiatrists are most prevalent in the wealthier counties of California.

Marin has 70 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; Napa has 66 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; San Louis Obispo has 49 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; Santa Clara has 26 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; and all of these counties are also located along the coast.

In comparison, inland counties with higher poverty levels have fewer psychiatrists. San Bernardino has 10 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; Riverside has 7 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; and Kern has 7.4 psychiatrists per 100,000 people.

Serious mental illness rates

Sadly, serious mental illness rates are highest in areas where poverty rates are highest and where there is a lack of psychiatrists. Humboldt, Kern, Madera and Imperial counties have the highest rates of serious mental illnesses and some of the highest poverty levels in all of California, illustrating the strong association between poverty and mental health.

Another interesting thing to look at is the geographical location of these counties; they are extremely far north, far south or inland in areas deemed not very desirable to live. It would be fascinating to look at a crime map and divorce rates in these areas as it has been shown that crime and divorce have a large impact in the development of mental illness.

Desirability of where to live and where to work

Psychiatrists are no different than the rest of the population; they want to live in a desirable location, which just so happens to be the coastal regions of California. The disparity of the wealth gap is creating the lack of psychiatrists in areas that are poverty stricken and where mental illnesses are the most prevalent.

People who make an annual salary close to or equal to poverty in California simply cannot afford to live in desirable coastal areas and, as a result, live in areas where they are more isolated. Psychiatrists earn far above the average salary than a typical Californian and, therefore, have no reason to live in an area that is deemed undesirable. So what is the solution?

Trying to fix the problem

It is very common that areas deemed underserved will pay off physicians’ medical student loans if they choose to live in that area for a certain number of years. This is simply to recruit more doctors to service the poor and underserved. These great incentives, however, might not be enough to lure new physicians into underserved areas in California. Something needs to be done and done quickly, as losing lives to mental illness due to a lack of care is unacceptable.

Sovereign Health of California has multiple locations in this state and treats mental illness, substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

Written by Kristen Fuller, M.D., Sovereign Health Group writer

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