Youngkin's mental health plan is a huge step in the right direction

Youngkin's mental health plan is a huge step in the right direction
AP Photo/Steve Helber

I generally try to stick to Second Amendment issues here at Bearing Arms, but given that gun control legislation is often used as a substitute for much-need action to fix our broken criminal justice and mental health systems, I think it’s worth noting and applauding Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s recently announced plan to finally address the crisis in mental heath care in the state; an effort that will do far more to improve both mental health and public safety than any gun control measure Youngkin’s Democratic opposition could offer.

Virginia not only suffers from a lack of access to outpatient mental health workers that can allow for mental illness to go unchecked and untreated until someone’s in crisis, but a lack of inpatient beds to handle those whose mental condition has deteriorated to the point that they need round-the-clock care and supervision, at least until the crisis has passed.

“Our jails, emergency rooms and hospitals are filled with people in mental health or substance use crisis. Law enforcement is overwhelmed. Our teachers are burned out. Our health care heroes are at their wit’s end. Parents and families feel lost and alone, and too many Virginians are afraid,” Youngkin said.

“It is critically important that we get this right,” he said, speaking at Parham Doctors’ Hospital in suburban Richmond.

The governor is set to unveil his full budget proposal to the politically divided General Assembly on Thursday. He said the budget would include over $230 million in new funding for mental health services. That proposed allocation, combined with funding previously earmarked in the last budgeting cycle, would bring total spending on behavioral health care to over $660 million in the next fiscal year, the governor’s office said.

Youngkin said the recent gun violence that has afflicted the state — including a campus shooting at the University of Virginia and a mass shooting at a Chesapeake Walmart — underscores the urgency of the issue. News reports have described the suspects in both shootings as having displayed erratic behavior.

Elizabeth Hilscher, who chairs the state board of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and whose daughter was among the 32 killed in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, said she was heartened to see a governor make mental health a top priority.

Hilscher, who was nominated to the board by former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said Virginia has one of the worst mental health systems in America. She said she had seen incremental improvements in fits and starts but also backsliding amid turnover in gubernatorial administrations and staff.

Hilscher also says she’d like to see more gun control laws, but she and I are at least in agreement on the value of Youngkin’s proposal to finally address Virginia’s mental health crisis. Even the Daily Progress newspaper in progressive Charlottesville is extolling the virtues of Youngkin’s plan.
The General Assembly should support the governor’s efforts. The state’s current mental health treatment system offers a safety net dry-rotted by neglect. This aging, overloaded safety net rips apart a little more each time a new person falls into it. In one notorious case, a nine-year-old child in foster care suffered a mental health crisis that required hospitalization, but could not find a hospital room.
Similar stories moved Youngkin to take action to protect some of Virginia’s most vulnerable citizens. The governor plans to allocate $20 million to increase the number of mental health mobile response teams to engage people in emergency situations. The additional mental health funding provides $58 million for receiving centers to help mental health patients in crisis. Another $20 million will go to erect partnerships with private hospitals that provide alternatives to dumping people in emergency rooms.
The waiting list for community services for people with mental health issues now sits at 3,000 statewide. Youngkin’s budget amendment funds slots to support 500 more individuals. That combines with 600 new slots funded by the General Assembly. One of Youngkin’s most ambitious goals is to eliminate the community services waiting list before he leaves office.
As the Daily Progress points out, even Youngkin’s plan won’t patch all of the gaping holes in the commonwealth’s mental health system. But this is far more than a “do something” soundbite solution. There’s real heft to the governor’s proposals. As a Virginia resident and someone who firmly believes in the value of repairing our institutions instead of imposing more gun control laws, I’m glad that Youngkin is making mental health a genuine priority, and I hope this plan sails smoothly through the legislature without the Democratic majority in the state Senate trying to poison the bill with more “red flag” language or other gun control restrictions presented as mental health measures that could lead to its defeat.