Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)
Following the second mass shooting in Virginia in as many weeks that left 7 dead as of midday Wednesday, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin said his administration plans to propose legislation to the General Assembly this winter to bolster mental health resources.
While offering few details to reporters following an annual Thanksgiving ceremony, Youngkin said his agenda would provide more resources, address staffing challenges and recognize that people undergoing a mental health crisis need “day-of” treatment.
“It’s extremely important,” Youngkin said. “We know that we have been in a mental health crisis and there are some very immediate actions that we need to take.”
Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears said in a statement Wednesday: “I commit to making mental health issues a priority of my office and will be working with the Governor, Attorney General, the General Assembly, and local leaders to address this crisis.”
Asked whether he was open to legislation restricting access to guns, Youngkin said “today’s not the time” to talk about such issues as investigations are still active.
“I fundamentally believe that there is going to be a moment to talk about these things. I believe the people who are trying to bring them up are trying to talk about things that really have a time,” Youngkin said. “Today’s not the time. Today’s the time to support families and bring people together. There will be a moment to talk about these things.”
The comments followed a mass shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake Tuesday night. Seven people died, including the shooter, who suffered a self-inflicted wound. Four people remain hospitalized, WAVY 10 reported Wednesday morning.
On Nov. 13, a University of Virginia student shot and killed three former football teammates and injured two on a bus returning from a school field trip to Washington D.C. The alleged shooter, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., is in custody, and Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office is conducting an external investigation of the shooting at the university’s request.
And earlier this year, two Bridgewater College police officers were killed during an on-campus shooting. The suspected shooter is facing charges in Rockingham County.
Mental health system strains
Virginia’s mental health system has been under strain for a number of years, with problems peaking in July 2021 when staffing shortfalls forced the state to temporarily close five of its mental hospitals to new admissions out of safety concerns.
Demands on state hospitals have also risen. Since Virginia’s “bed of last resort” law, which requires state psychiatric facilities to admit patients after an eight-hour period if a bed can’t be found in other facilities, went into effect in 2014, the number of patients admitted through temporary detention orders has increased by almost 400%.
The biennial budget passed by the General Assembly this June included salary increases of 37% on average for direct care staff in state mental health facilities in an effort to stem the losses. No increases were included for staff at community services boards, the local bodies that serve people with behavioral health issues in the community.
Mental health problems among students were also one of the primary issues highlighted by the state’s Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission in a recent study of COVID-19’s impact on Virginia schools. JLARC found such issues to be “concerningly prevalent” among students. At the same time, some districts are losing mental health providers due to what those providers say are changes in how the state handles its provision of such services.
Violence reduction efforts
Virginia passed major gun-control reforms in 2020 while the state was controlled by Democrats. The legislation imposed universal background checks on gun sales, instituted red flag orders, required gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, boosted some gun-related penalties and restored the state’s prior one-handgun-a-month law. A proposal to entirely ban assault weapons failed in the Senate.
During the last session, with power split between Democrats and Republicans, the parties agreed to include in the state budget $13 million aimed at reducing shootings through a fund that could issue grants to local governments, community groups and hospitals for gun violence reduction efforts and another fund focused on anti-crime strategies.
The figure was far less than the $27 million proposed by outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam and pushed by Senate Democrats during the last session for a statewide Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention within Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services.
This story has been corrected to note that the state closed mental hospitals to new admissions in July 2021, not July 2022.
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