Advocates for improving mental health treatment and education in Virginia will gather in Richmond next week to urge legislators to provide more funding and attention for such services.
By Sarah Danial for Capital News Service
Several groups will join in the lobbying effort: the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Voices for Virginia’s Children, Mental Health America of Virginia and VOCAL, a mental health service based in Henrico County. They will host a conference Monday and Tuesday at the offices of Voices for Virginia’s Children, 701 E. Franklin St.
The event organizers have designated Monday as Children’s Mental Health Advocacy Day and Tuesday as Mental Health Advocacy Day.
“We would like the public to know that more than between 20 and 25 percent of individuals, and their families, are affected by mental illness,” said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of NAMI Virginia. “So people with mental illness are all around us – they are our friends, family members and neighbors.”
The conference comes as the Virginia General Assembly is considering a slew of bills regarding mental health. They include proposals to expand access to mental health treatment for prisoners, increase mental health training for emergency officials and include mental health education in Virginia’s high school curriculum.
Mental Health America of Virginia, the state’s oldest mental health advocacy, is hopeful for real legislative change in an area in which the commonwealth compares poorly.
“We need to transform how the system is organized and funded. The current commissioner for behavioral health has a vision for how to do this that deserves serious discussion. Virginia ranks 40th of all the states in mental health care. There is a better way,” said the group’s executive director, Bruce Cruser.
The General Assembly has had a special panel studying the issue. The Mental Health Services in the Twentieth-Century Joint Subcommittee has made several recommendations to improve such services.
The recommendations include providing $1.1 million annually for three years to the Appalachian Telemental Health Network Initiative and possibly funding the public behavioral health system through options available under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Legislators also are considering such bills as:
- HB 252 – It would require high schools to have one mental health counselor for every 250 students.
- HB 934 – It would establish a process for prison officials to petition courts to authorize mental health treatment for inmates unable to give informed consent.
- HB 1088 – It would require the Virginia Board of Health to include training for emergency officials in identifying and safely assisting a person experiencing a mental health crisis.
- SB 669 – This bill would affect people who are ordered to involuntary inpatient or outpatient treatment for a mental illness as a minor. Under the legislation, they would be subject to the same restrictions in firearm possession as an adult who was ordered to involuntary treatment.
- SB 878 – It would require the Virginia Board of Corrections to adopt standards for mental health and substance services in local and regional correctional facilities
- SB 953 and HB 1604 – These bills would include mental health in the Standards of Learning for ninth- and 10th-graders. The students would learn about the relationship between physical and mental health.
Cruser said education plays a major role in understanding mental illness. He believes that if people are more educated about mental illness, they will seek treatment sooner.
“There is hope and recovery,” Cruser said. “There are others who have fallen in the same hole and know a way out. Ask for help.”