As a staffing crisis continues, Virginia tries to overhaul its mental health response system

New services aim to connect more patients with treatment, but a lack of providers is tempering expectations
Eastern State Hospital in James City County
Eastern State Hospital in James City County(Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services)
Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 12:28 PM EST
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When Alyssa Ward was tasked with overhauling Virginia’s mental health crisis system, she never imagined she’d be training hundreds of therapists live on YouTube from her guest bedroom.

But when COVID-19 hit, that’s exactly what happened. The state’s push to reform its mental health coverage weathered a nearly two-year-long pandemic and weeks of uncertainty after an initial funding freeze. But the final result, after months of collaboration, was the launch of new services aimed at substantially reducing admissions at Virginia’s beleaguered state-run mental hospitals.

“They really involve the full spectrum of crisis services,” said Ward, director of the behavioral health division for the state’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. “And they’re really going to pack the biggest punch in our continuing battle to resolve the psychiatric bed crisis.”

Starting Wednesday, Virginia’s Medicaid program will cover six new treatment options geared toward adults and children with urgent mental health needs. They include mobile crisis response teams and short-term stabilization units designed to divert patients away from local emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals.

On the same day, a handful of localities — including the cities of Richmond and Virginia Beach — are launching their own Marcus Alert programs, intended to reduce law enforcement involvement during psychiatric emergencies. But widespread staffing shortages in mental health will limit how far and how fast the reforms will be able to go.

In theory, the Marcus Alert legislation, named for an unarmed Richmond man who was killed after charging at a police officer during a mental health crisis, is intended to reduce law enforcement involvement during psychiatric emergencies. Localities launching the program have already established protocols to refer mental health calls to local crisis dispatch centers, where operators can triage and refer out to community services.

In truly urgent situations, such as an active suicide attempt, law enforcement and other first responders might still get involved. But Ward said many calls can likely be resolved over the phone and referred for supportive services later on. And ideally, law enforcement officers would be part of a mobile crisis team with mental health providers, serving a backup role rather than as frontline responders.


.(Virginia Mercury)

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

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