By Emily Richardson
The recently finalized Virginia budget makes significant investments in mental health services across the state, according to mental health advocates.
Gov. Glenn Younkin signed the budget into law in early September. It allocates billions of dollars in surplus funds to be used for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in July. Many components of the funding for mental health services reflect Youngkin’s “Right Help, Right Now” behavioral health plan, which emphasizes community–centered mental health care.
The budget allocates $58 million from the general fund to “expand and modernize” Virginia’s comprehensive crisis services system. This includes investment in crisis receiving centers and crisis stabilization units, as well as enhancements to existing sites. Crisis receiving centers are alternatives to hospital emergency rooms, and offer communities a “no-wrong-door access to mental health and substance use care,” according to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
Youth Mental Health Care
Lawmakers allocated over $10 million for the Virginia Mental Health Access Program. The program helps address the state’s shortage of pediatric mental health specialists by training primary care providers in mental health care and offering a call line for weekly support, according to the program’s assistant director of operations Rachel Reynolds.
There are 264 child and adolescent psychiatrists in Virginia, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. That equates to 14 psychiatrists for every 100,000 children, the national average, and falls within the range of a “severe shortage.” There are many counties without a child psychiatrist.
This $4 million increase from last year will help the program broaden its service scope beyond pediatric care, Reynolds said.
“The biggest part of this additional $4 million allocation is going to be used to expand the program to perinatal health and maternal health,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be able to include support for postpartum individuals, and they can be seen either through a pediatric office or an OB-GYN’s office.”
More than $12 million is allocated for child psychiatry and children’s crisis response services and divided among health planning regions based on the current availability of services. The funds can be used to hire or contract child psychiatrists, train other health care providers or create new crisis response services with an ultimate goal to keep children out of inpatient care and encourage community-based services.
The budget included an additional $5 million for school-based mental health integration grants. These grants allow schools to partner with community mental health providers and bring care directly to students, according to Rachael Deane, CEO of Voices for Virginia’s Children, a child policy and advocacy organization.
“It’s really bringing that support system to the school, which we feel is a really commonsense way to go about it,” Deane said. “We know that kids spend a lot of their time in school and in the school community, and these grants allow schools to help meet mental health needs by bringing folks into the school setting.”
Voices for Virginia’s Children continues to advocate for sustained funding for school-based mental health programs, Deane said. Overall, the organization is pleased with what funding has been allocated but “could always use more.”
“We’re immediately now looking forward to December, where the governor will unveil his proposal for the next biennial budget in Virginia, and we’re hoping that even more investments for mental health will be in that budget,” Deane said.
Other funding highlights include a one-time fund of $5 million for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to contract with local law enforcement agencies to transport individuals in emergency mental health situations to treatment facilities or to assume custody of them.
An allocated $18 million will allow community services boards staff to see a salary increase, effective Jan. 1 next year.
The budget allocates $3.1 million, a $1.5 million increase since last year, for the Behavioral Health Student Loan Repayment Program. The program promises to repay a portion of an eligible behavioral health professional’s student loan debt in exchange for their commitment to practice in Virginia for a minimum of two years, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
A student loan repayment program, and others like it, can help support the pipeline for mental health professionals, according to Bruce Cruser, executive director of the advocacy group Mental Health America of Virginia.
This budget is a great first step, Cruser said, but the organization hopes to see more support and funding for the pipeline in the next biennial budget.
“We could have all the funded services out there in the world, but if we don’t have people to provide the services, it doesn’t get us anywhere,” Cruser said.
“We need to have incentives to encourage people to go into the mental health field at all levels, from psychiatric nursing to therapists to psychiatrists to peer supporters,” Cruser said. “We really want to see a big effort there.”
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