Virginia’s efforts to better regulate mental health care go back at least 250 years, if not since the opening of the Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg in 1773. The commonwealth has since tried countless innovations and new approaches, but has failed to build a system that efficiently and affordably provides assistance to those seeking help, from the East Coast to the Southwest and all points in between.
Only time will tell if the latest effort — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “The Right Help, Now” reform plan — will provide the tangible and comprehensive reform needed for Virginia’s ballooning mental health crisis. But the governor and legislature deserve a lot of credit for making this a priority and backing up words with concrete and promising action.
Youngkin unveiled his six-pronged plan in December following the mass shootings at a Chesapeake Walmart and the University of Virginia that killed a total of nine people. The announcement specifically pointed to those incidents as evidence of Virginia’s shortcomings, but noted the growing need for safe and effective mental health services.
“There is no one in the room who has not been directly affected by a mental or behavioral health challenge, and our family is no exception,” Youngkin said after the press conference. In the year Lt. Gov. Winsom Earle-Sears said she experienced heartbreak familiar to Virginia families in 2012, when her daughter was in a mental health crisis and her son and two grandchildren were killed in a car accident.
How widespread is the problem? The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness, and 1 in 20 will be affected by a serious mental illness. It is especially acute in young people; According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the number of adolescents diagnosed with anxiety and depression has increased by 30% in recent years.
Following the 2013 incident in which Sen. Craig Deeds’ son stabbed his father before taking his own life during a major crisis, Virginia has focused on improving its mental health services for nearly a decade. Sen. Deeds, who lives in rural Bath County, was unable to secure a psychiatric bed for his son before the tragedy at the family home.
This led to the creation of a bipartisan legislative subcommittee focused solely on strengthening the overall system, expanding existing services, and integrating community-based services into a larger network of care.
Importantly, the General Assembly matches those priorities with funding, although advocates argue that it is not enough and that implementation of some initiatives has been too slow. The system has struggled to meet the huge demand created during the Covid-19 pandemic, when isolation and loneliness have taken their toll.
In December, Youngkin’s proposal was welcomed and an opportunity to renew efforts at reform was needed. The $230 million plan will create mobile crisis centers to reach those in need regardless of location, improve the continuum of care so that treatment seekers don’t slip through the cracks, and expand it to better meet the needs of the behavioral health workforce.
Crucially, the governor and Republicans in Richmond worked with Democrats to ensure multiple voices were heard in the legislative process, and the recommendations received broad bipartisan support before reaching Youngkin’s desk. Mental health is a societal problem, not a political one, so it’s refreshing to see state officials working together to address the issue.
But that wouldn’t have happened without Youngkin’s priority in December. As Virginia has seen time and time again, the urgency to improve mental health services blooms after a disaster but soon fades. The governor was right to move quickly to bring the issue to the fore and move the legislature into action.
Virginians may not yet know if these promising changes will make the significant difference needed to help everyone in need, but there is reason for hope and those responsible deserve our thanks.