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Virginia set to invest record amount in youth mental health

A person wearing an argyle sweater vest stands in front of a mural of late Richmond banker Maggie Lena Walker
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Elijah Lee, a freshman at Maggie L. Walker Governor's School in Richmond, spent this General Assembly session advocating for increased funding for youth mental health.

Up to 30 school districts could receive grants for school-based resources.

Editor’s note: This story references suicide and child abuse.

Concerns about students’ mental health soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, with expert groups declaring a national state of emergency in children’s mental health.

Recent surveys conducted by the Virginia Department of Education show that half of middle schoolers and nearly two-thirds of high schoolers reported feeling nervous, anxious or on edge in 2021 and 2022.

Even more troubling: 10% of middle school students and 13% of high school students reported that they seriously considered attempting suicide.

“If COVID as a whole has given us one thing, I think it has done a great job of bringing attention to the issue of mental health,” said 15-year-old Elijah Lee, a freshman at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond.

Lee, a community activist, advocated for more funding for youth mental health services this year — and also helped draft multiple pieces of legislation.

“It saddens me to know that I've lost friends and peers and people that I call brothers and sisters to suicide,” Lee said. “Not because their schools didn't care about them, not because their families didn't love them, not because they were bad people, but because they simply didn't have the resources to address the root of a problem.”

Although the state budget hasn’t been finalized, Virginia is slated to allocate a record amount of funding for youth mental health services, according to Emily Griffey, chief policy officer at nonprofit youth advocacy organization Voices for Virginia’s Children.

“We were kind of stunned that there was this much funding in the budget to begin with,” Griffey told VPM News.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed budget includes $15 million in funding for fiscal year 2024 to help pay for more school-based mental health services, up from just $2.5 million in fiscal 2023, which began on July 1, 2022. The funding would be made available to school districts through grants, and the budget language allows localities to contract with public or private community-based providers for the mental health services.

Griffey said six school divisions — Lunenburg, Bristol, Mecklenburg, Hopewell, Hanover and Richmond city — were already awarded grant funding from the fiscal 23 budget. The $15 million is expected to pay for services for up to 30 additional school divisions. The Senate and House budgets preserve this funding and also include an additional $16.8 million to pay for child psychiatry and crisis response services for children with mental health and behavioral disorders.

The Senate budget includes an additional $17 million to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate for several community-based services by 10%, which would pull down more federal dollars. Griffey said the funding will go a long way to ensuring students have access to mental health services; nearly half of Virginia’s children rely on Medicaid or Virginia’s Family Access to Medical Insurance Security Plan for health care.

“One thing we hear right now is that it takes a long time to get services,” Griffey said. “There’s just a lack of access to these mental health providers in general. Where the rubber hits the road and kids need to get services just isn’t happening.”

Griffey pointed out that Virginia is currently ranked 48th among states for youth mental health access but said she hopes the proposed funding increase in the current budget drafts will help change that.

“It’s really telling, I think, that despite that there are a lot of people who really care about this, we haven't really moved the needle on increasing investments and making sure that our system is able to meet kids’ needs,” Griffey said.

Elijah Lee said he benefited from therapy as a middle schooler, which he said helped him come to terms with the death of his father when he was 3 years old. Lee added he hopes sharing his story will encourage other students to seek help.

“I think we have to do a lot of work around de-stigmatizing,” Lee said, noting that Gen Z is doing better than other generations at breaking down the stigma and seeking out mental health resources.

One piece of legislation Lee proposed this year would provide required training for teachers about how to recognize and address signs of childhood trauma. Nearly all lawmakers signed off on the proposal, which now needs to be signed by the governor.

Lee said the bill is rooted in his experiences. When Lee was in first grade, a friend told him they’d been abused. He then told his mom, and started learning more about trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

“Too often, we're seeing our students who are being abused, who are experiencing trauma, they're slipping through the cracks. … Not because our teachers don't care, but because they're unprepared,” Lee said. “Would this training make them specialists? Absolutely not. This training would, however, let them know what to do when they see a student experiencing something going on at home or just going on in life, period.”

Griffey said the training will help teachers understand what kids bring into the classroom, so adults can ask questions like ‘what happened?’ — instead of ‘what’s wrong with you?’

“A kid may be acting out, having a behavior that is related to the trauma they've experienced, like losing a parent or violence in our community,” Griffey said. “Young people want to feel connected to school, valued in school so they can show up as their whole selves. They just want to have a school environment where they feel supported, where they have teachers and additional resources that they can talk to about what they're experiencing and trust as adults.”

Both Griffey and Lee said they see student trauma and the increased need for mental health services as intertwined issues. According to a January school board report, Richmond Public Schools has performed 180 suicide risk assessments, 175 threat assessments and sent 125 reports of abuse and neglect to child protective services — just in the current school year.

Whenever there’s a traumatic experience, Lee said, our minds interpret the experience as a potential danger.

“So, our brains are quick to shut it down. They're quick to hide it and to bury it,” Lee said. “However, it's also really important to work through it. Because if you don't, there's going to be a day where that comes back up.”

That trauma could then manifest itself later as depression or anger.

“I think that while it is great to approach this mental health issue with calmness,” he said, “we can never neglect the severity of the problems that we're seeing.”

This story is powered by the 2023 People's Agenda.

Mental health and suicide prevention resources:

In emergency situations, call 988 or 911.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

  • Deaf or Hard of Hearing? 1-800-799-4889
  • En Español: 1-888-628-9454

Mental Health America of Virginia Warm Line: 1-866-400-MHAV (6428)

  • Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Saturday, Sunday and Holidays, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Spanish Services (Friday and Saturday), 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Text/Chat Support (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1
Crisis Text Line: 741-741

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.