Virginia’s efforts to better manage mental health care trace back at least 250 years, to the opening of Williamsburg’s Eastern State Hospital in 1773, if not further. The commonwealth has tried countless innovations and new approaches in the time since, but has yet to build a system that effectively and affordably delivers help to those who need it, from the Eastern Shore to the Southwest and all points in between.
Only time will tell whether the latest effort — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “Right Help, Right Now” reform plan — delivers the substantive and sweeping reform needed for Virginia’s ballooning mental health crisis. But the governor and the legislature deserve considerable credit for making this a priority and backing up words with tangible and promising action.
Youngkin unveiled his six-pillar plan in December, following mass shootings at a Chesapeake Walmart and the University of Virginia that claimed a total of nine lives. The announcement pointed specifically to those incidents as evidence of Virginia’s shortcomings, but noted the growing scope of need for reliable and functional mental health services.
“There’s not a person in the room who hasn’t been touched directly with a mental or behavioral health challenge, and our family’s no different,” Youngkin said after his press conference. He noted that Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears experienced the heartbreak that is all too familiar to Virginia families when her daughter and two grandchildren died in a 2012 car accident while her daughter was in a mental health crisis.
How pervasive is the problem? The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness and 1 in 20 are affected by severe mental illness. It is particularly acute among young people; the number of teenagers diagnosed with anxiety and depression increased by 30% in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Virginia has focused its attention on improving its network of mental health services for nearly a decade, following a 2013 incident that saw the son of Sen. Creigh Deeds stab his father before taking his own life in the midst of an extreme crisis. Living in rural Bath County, Sen. Deeds was unable to secure a psychiatric bed for his son prior to the tragic episode in the family’s home.
That led to the creation of a bipartisan legislative subcommittee focused exclusively on strengthening the overall system, expanding the services available and better integrating community-based services into a larger network of care.
Importantly, the General Assembly has matched those priorities with funding, though advocates contend it hasn’t been enough and the implementation of specific initiatives has been too slow. The system has subsequently struggled to meet an uptick of demand that developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when isolation and loneliness took a heavy toll.
Youngkin’s proposal in December was therefore a welcome and needed opportunity to reinvigorate efforts at reform. His $230 million plan would create mobile crisis centers to reach those in need regardless of location, improve continuity of care so those seeking treatment don’t slip through the cracks, and expand the behavioral health workforce to better meet demand.
Critically, the governor and Republicans in Richmond partnered with Democrats to ensure more voices were heard in the legislative process and the proposals enjoyed broad bipartisan support before reaching Youngkin’s desk. Mental health is a societal problem, not a political one, so it’s refreshing to see state officials united to tackle the issue.
But this wouldn’t have happened without Youngkin making it a priority in December. As Virginia has seen time and again, the urgency to improve mental health services blooms after a tragedy but soon fades. The governor was right to move quickly to put the issue in the spotlight and to prod the legislature into action.
Virginians cannot yet know if these promising changes will deliver the substantive difference needed to help everyone who needs it, but there is reason for hope and those responsible deserve our gratitude.