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Advocates Hope VA Mental-Health Reform Has Hit 'Tipping Point'

Advocates say they hope cases such as the death of Jamycheal Mitchell will push the General Assembly to reform the state's mental-health system. (Facebook/the Mitchell family)
Advocates say they hope cases such as the death of Jamycheal Mitchell will push the General Assembly to reform the state's mental-health system. (Facebook/the Mitchell family)
January 16, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. -- It's been a long time coming, but advocates in Virginia hope the time is ripe for mental health reform at the General Assembly.

The shooting at Virginia Tech, the assault and suicide by the son of state Sen. Creigh Deeds and the death of Jamycheal Mitchell in jail - a series of tragedies in Virginia - were all the result of individuals with mental illness falling through the cracks.

Mira Signer, executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, said she hopes the issue has reached a tipping point for action at the General Assembly this year.

"If somebody picks up the phone and says, 'I need help,' that person needs to be seen then and there,” Signer said. "If they're told, 'I don't have the staff' or, 'The wait time is one-to-two weeks,' it's too late."

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said he wants $32 million of new funding to improve mental health services in the state. But with an overall budget shortfall of $1.5 billion, some lawmakers have pushed for part of that funding to go to state trooper pay raises.

Another McAuliffe proposal - to require training for police and jail staff in dealing appropriately with the mentally ill - also is running into resistance. Lawmakers have argued that it would mean more work and expense for local governments.

Signer said the new burden would be small, and points to the international attention drawn to Virginia when Mitchell died in jail after stealing $5 worth of snacks.

"Especially following this most recent death of the young man in Portsmouth, our feeling was that there is finally enough momentum - enough political will - to bring the problems out in the open and establish concrete ways of addressing them,” Signer said.

She said she credits Sen. Deeds with moving the issue forward. In 2013 Deeds' son Gus attacked him with a knife and committed suicide after failing to find an available place for treatment.

McAuliffe's budget includes $7 million to expand capacity at the local Community Service Boards.

More information on this issue is available at namivirginia.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA