I was fortunate enough to graduate from the top-ranked public high school in California, eighth best nationally.

Over the next few years, the abrupt passing of several admirable and successful former classmates indicated that even an upbringing of opportunity could not protect the families of my community from tragedies such as suicide, drug overdose and other preventable deaths.

Today, 1 in 5 American youths suffers from mental illness. These statistics span racial, socioeconomic and cultural demographics. As the number of affected adolescents continues to grow, 80% of those who could benefit from mental health assessment and treatment never receive help. Of the many potential causes for the disparity between need and treatment, the devastating shortage of mental health providers remains an indisputable problem.

Though Orange County is not frequently considered an "underserved" area, it mirrors most of the nation in facing an extreme shortage of children's mental health services. Currently, the region is served by only 70 practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists, who are responsible for meeting the demands of more than 750,000 children.

While admittedly only a minority of these children require the services of a psychiatrist, the problem remains even when considering only those with severe mental disorders. National numbers suggest that of the roughly 150,000 Orange County children struggling with mental illness, only 2,800 will ever receive access to care. The problem dramatically worsens in neighboring San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties. Even those across the nation with access to care face average wait times of 7 1/2 weeks.

The good news is that multiple studies have definitively shown that when mental health disorders are identified and treated early, we can successfully improve outcomes and help our youths lead productive lives. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly advance adolescent development during a critical period of intellectual, social and personal growth, resulting in effective and even potentially life-saving therapies.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) is one of the few California legislators who has cosponsored legislation that would provide a loan relief program for pediatric mental health providers, including child and adolescent psychiatrists, to address these shortages. However, lack of funding has resulted in the continual decrease in the number of child and adolescent psychiatry residency training programs.

It is time to turn these calls for action into reality. By assuring greater support and funding of mental health services for children and youths struggling with serious mental illness, we can improve the lives of the next generation and avoid unnecessary tragedies.

MONA NOROOZI is the communications coordinator for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Irvine.