Virginia students push for better mental health services

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Virginia students are urging state lawmakers to improve mental health services, especially in schools.

During a recent visit to the State Capitol with the advocacy group Virginia’s Youth in Action, Loudoun County high school student Ishika Vij and Virginia Commonwealth University freshman Heciel Nieves-Bonilla fired the alarm bells on growing mental health needs.

“It’s definitely a crisis,” Nieves-Bonilla said. “The fact is, people don’t know where to go for mental health help.”

Vij, 16, said she struggled to get help for an eating disorder at school when she was 12. For one thing, she claims it took about three weeks to get a 15-minute appointment. Additionally, she said her case was later made worse after telling her counselor about suicidal thoughts.

“It really takes a long time in this backup system and I wasn’t in such an extreme crisis right now, but imagine there was a student who was in this state and he didn’t know what to do. It might have been too late,” Vij said.

A bill by Sen. Jeremy McPike would tighten the state’s definition of a “school counselor” and require them to spend most of their time providing direct student services.

“We don’t need them to be hijacked to replace teaching, lunch service and other things. It’s really putting that time where the students need it,” McPike said.

The bill would also expand the pool of people schools can hire as school counselors by allowing clinical psychologists to offer services with a temporary license while they obtain additional certification. It also asks the school board to create a model that schools can use to partner with community mental health providers and streamline student referrals.

“We need to be more agile. We know our children are in crisis right now and this is a time when everyone is on deck,” McPike said.

Another proposal by Senator Creigh Deeds would require annual trauma-informed care training for teachers. This would help educators recognize warning signs and connect students to support services.

An amendment to Del’s budget. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who is also a public school teacher, is offering nearly $59 million to pay for the state’s share of hiring more school counselors. If approved, it would fund at least one counselor for every 250 students, down from the current 325-to-one ratio. VanValkenburg said this is the staffing level recommended by the Board of Education and is considered national best practice.

“I think it was a missed opportunity by the Governor. We talk a lot about academic excellence and mental health. Counselors and support staff are essential for all of this,” VanValkenburg said.

When asked why Gov. Glenn Youngkin isn’t offering direct funding to hire more school counselors, Virginia Health and Human Services Secretary John Littel said his plan was to be executed over three years. and that their first priority was to expand crisis infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of agreement on all the components of this. This is probably the most bipartisan thing going on in the Assembly today,” Littel said in a phone interview Monday.

Littel said Youngkin’s plan to expand school mental health services has two main components.

Youngkin is proposing an additional $15 million in flexible grants that school divisions can use in a variety of ways to better meet local student mental health needs. It will build on a $2.5 million pilot program launched last year.

“The governor has told us whatever seems to be working, let’s do more,” Littel said. “So it’s not going to be system-wide, but it will create opportunities in several to a few dozen school districts.”

An additional $9 million is aimed at expanding behavioral telehealth services at publicly funded higher education institutions. Littel said the goal is to reduce pressure on campus-based services so those slots can be used by students with the most severe conditions.

“We think we might be able to cover all the costs so they can use the funds they’ve invested there in other mental health services,” Littel said.

As the General Assembly debates which proposals should remain in the final budget, Vij said lawmakers must make student mental health a top priority.

“We can’t do much. We can talk about it, but it’s up to them to vote and make a change,” Vij said.

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