Virginia students lobby 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, Ishika Vij, a high school student in Loudoun County and Hesiel Nieves-Bonilla, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, raised the alarm about growing mental health needs. Played.

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

Vij, 16, said she faced barriers to getting help for an eating disorder at school when she was 12. She said it took about three weeks to get a 15-minute appointment. She said that after telling her counselor about suicidal thoughts, her case progressed.

“It takes a really long time to be in this supported system and I wasn’t in such serious trouble at the moment, but imagine there was a student who was in that situation and they didn’t know what to do. It probably would have been too late.” Vij said.

A bill by Senator Jeremy McPike would tighten the state’s definition of school counselors and require that they spend the majority of their time providing direct services to students.

“We don’t need to change them to change teaching, lunch duty and other things. It’s really devoting that time to where students need it,” McPike said.

The bill would also expand the pool of people who can be hired as school counselors by allowing clinical psychologists to offer services with a temporary license while they obtain an additional certification. It also directs the Board of Education to create a template that schools can use to partner with community mental health providers and streamline student referrals.

“We have to be more agile. We know our children are in crisis right now and this is a perfect moment,” McPike said.

Another proposal by Senator Craig Deeds would require annual trauma-informed care training for teachers. This will help teachers recognize early warning signs and connect students with support services.

Dell. A budget amendment from Schuyler VanValkenburg, also a public school teacher, proposes about $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 ratio of 325 to 1. VanValkenburgh said that’s the Board of Education’s recommended staffing level and is considered a national best practice.

“I think it was a missed opportunity by the governor. We’ve been talking a lot about school excellence and mental health. Counselors and support staff are key to all of that,” VanValkenburgh said.

When asked why Governor Glenn Youngkin is not proposing direct funding to hire more school counselors, Virginia Health and Human Services Secretary John Little said he intends to complete the plan in three years and that his The first priority is to expand the crisis infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of agreement about all the components of this. It’s probably the most bipartisan thing that happened in the Legislature today.”

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

Youngkin is proposing an additional $15 million in flexible grants that can be used in a variety of ways to meet the mental health needs of students locally. This will build on a $2.5 million pilot program launched last year.

“Anything the governor tells us that looks like it’s working, let’s do more of it,” Little said. “So it’s not going to be system wide, but it will create opportunities in several dozen school districts.”

Another $9 million seeks to expand tele-behavioral health services to state-funded institutions of higher education. Lytle said the goal is to take the pressure off campus-based services so that those slots can be used by students with the most severe conditions.

“We think we might be able to take care of all the costs for this so they can use money that’s invested in other mental health services,” Little said.

As the General Assembly debates on what proposals should remain in the final budget, Vij said lawmakers need to give top priority to the mental health of students.

“There’s only so much we can do. We can talk about it but it’s up to them to vote and make a change.”

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