0
Votes

The Power of Persistence

New laws will deal with mental health, campus safety.

In a little over a month, two new bills dealing with mental health and college safety will take effect in Virginia. And both are a result of the work of two members of the Angel Fund board and a small group of politicians.

Born out of the Virginia Tech tragedy, the goal of the nonprofit Angel Fund is to make a difference in young people’s lives via education, advocacy and various programs. Its Centreville-based board of directors is especially interested in mental health and translating it into student safety on college campuses.

HB 1609, sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo (R-40), and SB 1342, sponsored by state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34), passed the General Assembly and were signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

This bill requires colleges and universities to establish a written memorandum of understanding with local community-service boards and/or mental health facilities to expand services for students seeking treatment. All colleges now must designate a point of contact to be notified should a student be involuntarily committed or discharged from a facility.

Colleges must also be included in the post-discharge planning of students who have been committed and return to campus. The information sharing is subject to state and federal privacy laws.

To get these bills passed, Angel Fund Board member Greg Richter approached Hugo to patron HB 1609 in the House, and Angel Fund President Lu Ann McNabb asked Petersen to carry this bill in the Senate. Furthermore, both Richter and McNabb went to Richmond and advocated for it in the House and Senate, respectively.

Then, during the session, the Senate changed the word “shall” to “may,” rendering the bill meaningless, but appeals to McDonnell by Hugo and Angel Fund led him to amend the language back to “shall.” Petersen persuaded the Senate to agree.

Del. Scott Surovell (D-44) sponsored HB 2322 and Sen. George Barker (D-39) sponsored SB 1078. This bill requires community colleges to designate an individual at each college to serve as a point of contact with a local mental-health facility to facilitate the screening and referral of students who may have emergency or urgent mental-health needs. McDonnell signed this bill, as well, after it passed the General Assembly.

Angel Fund was created in the memory of Reema Samaha, one of the 32 Virginia Tech victims killed by a young college student with serious mental problems. McNabb knew Samaha and her family well and wanted to do whatever she could to prevent such a tragedy from reoccurring on a college campus.

Both the new bills were derived from recommendations of the Virginia College Mental Health Study, released in November 2011: http://www.law.virginia.edu/pdf/news/study_recomm_nov2011.pdf.

“The bills were important to Angel Fund because we believe the mental health of young people is key to their success, happiness and future,” said McNabb “The years from 18-26 are very vulnerable years; usually, these are the years when serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, manifest themselves.”

“Many young people struggle with depression, anxiety, possible drug and/or alcohol abuse in these years, and some contemplate or commit suicide,” she continued. “We believe that anything our society can do — including our institutions of higher learning — to support students through these years is critical.”

Grateful to McDonnell for signing the bills and Surovell, Hugo, Barker and Petersen for sponsoring and advocating for them, McNabb said, “We appreciate their tenacity and determination to make significant changes to how we address the treatment of our students’ mental health.”

Angel Fund also worked with Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-67) to monitor and review Del. Mark Cole’s (R-88) bill, HB 2344, requiring school divisions to establish policies and procedures for the establishment of threat-assessment teams at the K-12 level. That bill was also signed by McDonnell and, like the others, will take effect July 1.