Here to Help: Virginians Seek Expansion to Youth Mental Health Services

By Amie Knowles

February 9, 2022

“The ‘just deal with it, you’ll be fine, get over it,’ and suffering must stop.”

“I always say just [like] if we have stomach pains, we may go to the doctor to get checked on for that—we have mental health pains as well.”

Those words of wisdom came from Annette Alston, a school-based mental health provider in Virginia. She joined elected officials and youth advocates across the commonwealth in a virtual discussion led by Voices for Virginia’s Children, an independent multi-issue child policy and advocacy organization, which focused on children’s mental health.

In her school, which remained undisclosed during the discussion, Alston noted multiple factors today’s youth face, including: trauma, community violence, violence in the home, depression, anxiety, suicidal and homicidal thoughts, physically absent parents, emotionally absent parents, and parents with untreated mental health illnesses. The challenges didn’t stop there.

“I see adultification—young people who are working to support their families, households—which contributes to attendance issues,” Alston said. “Sometimes the choice is either work or school. Young adults are feeling responsible for their parents and for their siblings.”

Put it all together, and there’s a mental health crisis afoot. 

Talking to Virginia’s Youth

Voices for Virginia’s Children reported that during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 25% of American high school students noted worsened emotional and cognitive health. By the end of 2021, the US faced a national state of emergency in children’s mental health. Virginia youth were not immune.

“We’ve heard from kids around the commonwealth that they are not okay,” said Amy Strite, CEO of Voices for Virginia’s Children, at the virtual discussion. “On top of the very normal and expected challenges of being a tween, a teen, or a young adult, we know that the last 22 months has brought additional disruption, trauma, grief, and loss.”

Strite introduced Melissa Gilliam, a youth advocate at Voices for Virginia’s Children, who spoke to some of the challenges today’s young people face. The 23-year-old from Farmville addressed the issues facing her generation, some of which included “seeing life happen” and seeing the struggles loved ones faced. Oftentimes, those lived experiences became untold stories of burdens, truths, and hardships, which Gilliam said the COVID-19 pandemic made worse.

“Mental health is not a joke. Mental health is not a trend. Mental health is not just a hashtag,” Gilliam said. “So much of what you experience as a child influences who you are as an adult and how you function, including learning behaviors and forming habits.”

Gilliam expressed concern that today’s youth are internalizing their observations and experiences due to a lack of mental health resources, coupled with dismissive tendencies by others.

“The ‘just deal with it, you’ll be fine, get over it,’ and suffering must stop,” Gilliam said.

Tackling the Issue

According to Voices for Virginia’s Children, mental health issues are common in children of all ages, and 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. In Virginia, one-in-five children experience symptoms of mental health disorders. 

However, access and treatment options for mental health issues in children remain limited—an issue both Alston and Gilliam raised.

According to Rural Health Information Hub, there are noticeable barriers to mental health treatment in rural areas. Six common barriers include:

  • Desire to receive care
  • Lack of anonymity when seeking treatment
  • Shortages of mental health workforce professionals
  • Lack of culturally competent care
  • Affordability of care
  • Transportation to care

Del. Cia Price also noted that some youth may be more susceptible to mental health setbacks than others. 

“It’s important for me to underscore that mental health setbacks can happen to anyone and everyone needs help, but we also must address when there are disparities—and right now girls and LGBTQ+ students are more likely to express mental health concerns,” Price said. “In Hampton Roads where I live, the waitlist for services is getting longer and longer, and that’s not helping students who need help to get back on track. They’re not able to concentrate and learn and live up to their potential while waiting for the services they need.”

Price further noted a September 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which found that white children—a higher percentage of boys—were more likely to receive mental health treatment than Hispanic or non-Hispanic black children.

Mental Health’s in Virginia’s Budget [Proposal]

Currently, there are nine budget amendments aiming to improve Virginians’ mental health support. Together, the changes would integrate mental health in school settings, address workforce shortages, and create a Behavioral Health Commission task force for the state to find ways to support local-level services.

While some of the proposals didn’t have a monetary specification in place, one budget amendment by Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Price did—and the price tag rang in at $10 million each year for the next two years.  

The amendment would provide funds from the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services to local school divisions. With that money, the divisions could contract community-based mental health services from local providers for students.

“Virginia doesn’t have the luxury of not prioritizing this critical matter any longer,” Gilliam said. “Resources, especially because of the pandemic, are in high demand and vital to everyone, but particularly vital to youth. Youth are being told their problems aren’t bad enough, and they don’t meet the criteria to receive services. They’re being turned away. Our children and young adults are looking to you and pleading for help. How will you show up?”

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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