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The governor and lawmakers should pay special attention to mental health when looking to improve the safety of Virginia’s schoolchildren.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Credit is due budget writers in the Virginia House of Delegates for responding to recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on School and Campus Safety with some money for mental health programs.
Of all the initial recommendations for avoiding a repeat in Virginia of the slaughter at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Conn., these are the ones that deal with preventing, rather than defending against or punishing, another assault on a school.
They are worth preserving in budget negotiations between the House and Senate, the latter of which added no new funding as a result of the task force’s mental health recommendations. It already had incorporated some new money for mental health services in its proposed budget revisions, however.
The House earmarked additional tax dollars for two programs: $650,000 to advance an effort under way to build a comprehensive statewide suicide prevention program. And $1.9 million for mental health first aid training and certification to assure that school personnel and others who work closely with the public can recognize signs of mental disorders in people they deal with.
The idea there is to learn how to communicate respectfully with people who show signs of mental illness and possibly encourage them to get help. This is a commendable program, but alone will go only part way toward connecting people who are ill with the help they need.
NAMI Virginia, the state affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, considers the House amendments a mixed blessing. “It’s good to raise awareness, to get more people trained. But unless you have the services where people can go for help, you do a disservice to them,” executive director Mira Signer noted in a phone interview.
In Virginia, outpatient mental health services are so underfunded that people in crisis must wait for help. Better understanding of mental illnesses can help erase the stigma and encourage people to seek treatment. But, Signer asked, “When somebody goes to the phone to get some help and can’t get it, what then?”
Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg, asked for and got a seat on the task force subcommittee on mental health. He was gratified that funding for a couple of its recommendations made it into the House plan. But he agreed with Signer.
Yost, who works in behavioral health, echoed Signer in saying money to increase the number of crisis intervention centers is a more pressing priority, a task force recommendation the House panel did not include but which could still be part of a final budget deal.
Task force subcommittees on education and public safety also made recommendations that bear consideration. But improvements in recognizing and treating mental illnesses promise to bear the most fruit, not only by helping to avert tragedies but by ameliorating much human suffering that goes untended.
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