California’s tax for mental health programs, applying to individuals with personal incomes above $1 million, prevented 5,500 deaths from suicide between 2005 and 2019, according to a study published Wednesday by the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
The study used U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data to determine how the 2004 millionaire’s tax affected deaths by suicide in the state, developing a “parallel version of California” to predict what would have happened without the tax, according to USC.
The largest number of suicide deaths — approximately 870 — was averted in 2019, the final year studied, the study shows.
Reducing suicides is a pressing issue given that the U.S. suicide mortality rate increased by over 30% from 1999-2019, according to the study’s author, Michael Thom, associate professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
Reductions in suicide were greatest among older adults, raising questions about how to better serve younger people with mental health challenges, Thom said.
The study was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One.
Research also revealed that not all groups experienced the same benefits from the more robust mental health services funded by the millionaire’s tax. For example, the male suicide rate is triple that of females. Moreover, the study found that women’s suicide mortality rate decreased significantly more than it did among men. The reduction in female suicide mortality in California in 2019 was 29% compared to the 17% reduction among males, the study found.
Thom said he was surprised by the finding that older people experienced a larger reduction in suicide deaths than younger people. Adults age 55-65 years and those over 65 years had some of the largest and most consistent reductions in suicide deaths.
“So much of what we hear in the media is the increase in suicide or suicidal thoughts among younger people,” said Thom, who points to the fact that it’s now the second leading cause of death among individuals under 34. “Disappointingly, this tax doesn’t appear to have moved the needle when it comes to reducing suicide deaths among younger adults.”
Thom theorizes that older adults can more easily accommodate inpatient and outpatient care than younger adults because they are less likely to be tied to fixed employment schedules and domestic responsibilities. People over 65 may also benefit from Medicare’s mental health services.
The study results go only through 2019; since that time, mental health struggles have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, making it even more critical to evaluate the effectiveness of policies such as California’s, Thom said.
Since voters approved the tax in 2004, it has generated $29 billion in total. The funds have boosted early intervention programs in schools and communities, created wraparound services for severely mentally disabled homeless people and enhanced community outreach.