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Column: Helping Keep Community Safe

There isn’t one answer to prevent violence in our society. Gun debates often take all the headlines. Those debates are important to have. But they are not the only debate. There is another conversation going on in Richmond that is also very important to community safety. Virginia’s mental health system, its ability to support the needs of people identified with mental illness and our community capacity to respond to mental health emergencies has to be included in our efforts to improve community safety.

I’ve heard people on both sides of the political aisle talk about the importance of addressing our mental health system’s needs. One component of that work should include Mental Health First Aid training for teachers and other community leaders.

Many of us get uncomfortable when faced with mental health issues. Families don’t like to talk about it. Friends rarely mention it. These conditions often fall into the realm of whispers or are avoided all together. But avoidance doesn’t make our communities safer. It lets issues fester and keeps people from getting the help they need.

According to the National Association of Mental Illness, over 26 percent of adults will likely suffer from an identifiable mental health condition in a given year. With so many of us touched by these issues in one way or another, improving our ability to manage them should be a priority.

Mental Health First-Aid certification, which comes after a 12-hour course, is a proven tool to help people provide assistance in mental health emergency situations. Studies show that people with the training are more comfortable addressing mental health issues. The social stigma of mental health issues goes down as a result of this training. Communities where this training has occurred have improved their ability to coordinate mental health services. And the likelihood somebody with a mental health condition gets help goes up in areas where this training has been done.

Many police departments in Virginia already get a version of this training, called Crisis Intervention Team or CIT training. MHFA programs have been instituted in states as diverse as Maryland and Colorado for example. In those and other states more than 2,500 instructors have trained over 100,000 individuals to recognize those who are having a mental health issue and respond appropriately.

Making a version available for teachers and other community leaders would help expand our ability to manage these issues. Teachers, college professors and others with this training could help identify students and community members that need support and help before their conditions become dangerous. MHFA has the potential to assist thousands of individuals from across the commonwealth in getting the help that they need.

I’m pleased to be working with Delegates Yost, O’Bannon and many others on HB 2287 and its companion budget amendment to provide $2.5 million so our Community Services Boards could hire trainers and acquire training materials to provide this valuable training throughout the Commonwealth. We have also shared this information with the Governor's School and Campus Safety Task Force.

There is talk from Washington of implementing a national MHFA program. While this would be a great step, Virginia, with its system of Community Services Boards, is in a great position to be a leader on this. With mental health conditions so pervasive in society, our teachers, our college professors, all of us could all benefit from being armed with better training and information about how to handle them. Instead of leaving these issues festering in the shadows of society, lets bring them out in the open and help people get the support they need. It will help all of us. It will help keep our communities safe.