Commentary: Progress on Mental Health Reforms

Commentary: Progress on Mental Health Reforms

A robust legislative agenda seeking to improve Virginia’s approach to mental health crises emerged this year from the Joint Subcommittee Studying Mental Health Services.

The committee was formed in 2014 with the passage of legislation, introduced by Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), which I co-sponsored. Senator Deeds humbly and heroically transformed his personal tragedy into progress. He had been stabbed by his son, Gus, who suffered from mental illness, who then committed suicide. Days before his son’s death, Senator Deeds sought help for Gus but was told that Gus did not meet the criteria for hospitalization, which was being a danger to himself or others. The General Assembly adopted reforms to establish a new real-time registry of available psychiatric beds, and a law requiring state hospitals to serve as a facility of last resort and provide beds to those in need. Since then, the “Deeds’ Commission” has been tasked with evaluating long-term solutions needed to address mental health issues.

Legislation initiated by the committee this year would require local Community Service Boards to provide additional mental health services, improve how our criminal justice system addresses intake and discharge of at-risk inmates, and also provide funding for permanent supportive housing.

SB1005, legislation sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) and Senator Deeds would increase required mental health services offered by Community Service Boards (CSBs) and behavioral health authorities. The bill will expand the core services of CSBs to include same-day access to mental health screening. It would also require crisis services for individuals with mental health or substance use disorders, outpatient services, psychiatric rehabilitation, peer support and family services and targeted mental health case management. Funding to provide same-day access was provided in the Governor’s proposed budget, and the bill has passed the Senate unanimously and is progressing quickly through the House of Delegates.

Another positive advancement is the inclusion in both the House and Senate budgets of more money to provide rent subsidies and other support to help get people out of state hospitals or off the street and into housing. Whatever the final amount, I am confident significantly more resources will be made available to support a “housing first” approach to address the needs of some of the most vulnerable Virginians. Having access to stable housing is essential to putting people on the path to permanent recovery.

In the wake of escalating problems in jails across Virginia and the death of Jamycheal Mitchell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail a renewed focus was placed on the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system. Mitchell, who was arrested for stealing a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar, and a Zebra Cake from a 7-Eleven, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was ordered to be transferred to a state psychiatric hospital. Instead, after 101 days in jail, he lost 40 pounds and died of starvation. Several bills were introduced to build on efforts in 2016, when we funded pilot programs to improve the ability of jails to identify and better provide services to mentally ill inmates.

SB975, sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, engages Community Service Boards in the mental health pre-screening process at local and regional jails and grants them the responsibility of providing services to inmates. The bill seems poised for passage.

SB1063 redefines the qualifications required to sit on the Board of Corrections. The revamped board will include mental health practitioners, professionals with experience conducting death investigations, as well as other experts and community advocates.

On an additional positive note, legislation to provide planning services for those with serious mental illnesses due to be released from local and regional correctional facilities, SB941, has passed both the House and Senate. It now awaits Gov. McAuliffe’s signature.

I introduced legislation to provide for a study which would have identified solutions for addressing the physical and mental health needs unique to older incarcerated adults and those being discharged into the community at an advanced age, 20 percent of whom suffer from some degree of mental illness. The Senate Finance Committee, however, opted to wait to conduct this research until a current study evaluating the health needs of the general prison population has been completed.

While not all legislation recommended by the Joint Subcommittee Studying Mental Health Services made its way through the General Assembly this year, bipartisan, bicameral support for addressing mental health issues is a positive step. The General Assembly has embraced several aspects of mental health reform, however, several important steps remain to be taken before we are fully faithfully supporting this community. Our work to build coalitions across regional and party lines to benefit the mental health of Virginians continues.

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