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Commentary

Broken Promises

Virginia’s mental health services system fails to serve many of those in need of its services.

By Kenneth R. “Ken” Plum

State Delegate (D-36)

Last month the disAbility Law Center (dLCV) issued a report on the condition of mental health services in Virginia. It is an eye-opening report: Broken Promises, the Failure of Mental Health Services in Virginia. Its findings are direct: “Despite the promises of reform to the mental health service system in the last decade, Virginia’s mental health services system fails to serve many of those in need of its services.”

According to dLCV, there are more than 40,000 Virginians living with serious mental illness and thousands more with less serious emotional disorders that require treatment including an estimated 130,658 children between the ages of 9 and 18 who need treatment. The dLCV which advocates for all people with disabilities to be free from abuse, neglect, and discrimination considers the problem in part to be a misallocation of resources. As its report points out, on any given month about 10 percent of residents of state hospitals continue to be hospitalized even though their treating professionals have found that they no longer need to be hospitalized. Thirty-one of the 133 individuals in such hospital placements in November 2013, had been waiting for discharge for more than a year. The problem is that there are inadequate or nonexistent facilities or programs in the community to continue services to these persons. At the same time, there were an estimated 26,990 inmates confined in local and regional jails of whom nearly 25 percent were known or suspected to be mentally ill. More than 3,500 persons in jails were diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

The dLCV maintains that funding is misdirected towards unnecessary hospitalization when funding is needed desperately for community-based crisis response services and housing options for people with mental health needs. Their position is not without controversy. Others maintain that both more hospital spaces and more community-based facilities are needed.

The tragic event surrounding the family of Senator Creigh Deeds has brought the need to the public’s attention. Outgoing Governor Bob McDonnell has proposed a more than $50 million increase in the budget for mental health services and has established a commission to develop a plan for mental health services in the Commonwealth. There is bipartisan support to address the issue in terms of additional funding as well as to amend existing statutes to permit persons who are a danger to themselves and to others to be held for a longer period of time until appropriate treatment is available to them.

We are past the time when we should have met the promises for reform to persons with mental health problems and their families. The 2014 session of the General Assembly must respond. You can view my interview with Colleen Miller, Executive Director of disAbility Law Center of Virginia and another interview with George Braunstein, Director of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, both on the topic of mental health reform at http://vimeo.com/album/1650266.