Senate committees hear several mental health bills, with varying outcomes

State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta.

Two bills aimed at addressing both the state’s psychiatric hospital crisis and mental health in schools passed easily through their respective committees Thursday, while a subcommittee punted on another designed to expand teachers’ ability to recognize mental illness.

Virginia’s psychiatric hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients under temporary detention orders, often operating near 100 percent capacity, and the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health in the Commonwealth in the 21st Century, known as the Deeds Commission after Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, has been following the issue closely.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, carried one of the committee’s bills, which would allow the state to study the crisis further, focusing in particular on those individuals who are not only suffering from severe mental health challenges, but have complicated medical problems, as well.

“We’re struggling to deal with people with complex medical needs, in addition to being in mental health crisis,” Hanger told the Committee on Education and Health on Thursday.

The bill passed the Senate committee unanimously.

“There are people showing up in the state hospitals that have complex medical needs that the state hospitals really don’t have the capacity to address,” said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia. “This study will help us learn more about what those folks need and how we can address their needs.”

Soon after, the committee also unanimously approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, that will expand mental health education in public schools.

Last year the General Assembly passed legislation to add mental health to the ninth and 10th grade health curriculum, McClellan told the committee. Her bill expands that throughout all grades “in an age-appropriate way,” she said.

She shared Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics on mental health, including that 7.4 percent of children age 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with behavioral problems, 7.1 percent have been diagnosed with anxiety and 3.2 percent have been diagnosed with depression.

“If these diagnoses are occurring as early as age 3, waiting until eighth grade to begin to incorporate discussions on mental health really leaves a lot of these kids behind,” she said.

Later on in the day, however, a Senate Education and Health subcommittee on public education killed a bill that Deeds sponsored. It would have required all teachers receive mental health first aid. The idea is that the training works for mental health crises in the same way that CPR helps someone having a heart attack. It would give teachers the tools to recognize mental illness and help students when going through a crisis.

The bill was supported by Voices for Virginia’s Children and the Legal Aid Justice Center, and some high school students spoke in favor of the bill. But education advocates, including the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Education Association, spoke against it, acknowledging the benefits of the bill but calling it an unfunded mandate that would require teachers receive eight hours of training without any pay.

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Katie O'Connor
Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.