With a mental health system in crisis, lawmakers inch toward stabilization

With a mental health system in crisis, lawmakers inch toward stabilization
A storm passes over the Capitol in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In its changes to the state budget, the 2019 General Assembly inched closer to stabilizing Virginia’s struggling mental health system.

The effort is in part driven by the ongoing crisis within the state’s psychiatric hospitals, which have seen an unprecedented uptick in admissions, resulting in dangerous overcrowding.

On Tuesday, eight of the state’s 10 psychiatric facilities were operating at 95 percent capacity or above, according to data from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. Hospitals are considered safest for patients and staff when operating at no more than 85 percent capacity.

Advocates and concerned lawmakers have pushed for a multifaceted approach to address the problems: increase resources to the hospitals to help current staff cope with the high numbers and simultaneously fund community services to prevent people from ending up in the mental hospital in the first place.

The 2018 biennium budget pumped $84.1 million into community-based mental health services, according to Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who chairs the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Twenty-First Century, known as the Deeds Commission.

This session, lawmakers added $5 million for permanent supportive housing, a model that allows residents to choose their own stable housing while receiving supportive services. That money could pay for about 400 more units, in addition to funding for around 900 units that has already been allocated to the behavioral health department for fiscal year 2020.

More units could make a big difference for the high hospital census, said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Association of Mental Illness of Virginia, because it would help address the extraordinary barriers to discharge list — those people who have been medically cleared to leave the hospital but remain there because they have nowhere else to go.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.