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Mental health services reform in Virginia seems likely in 2014

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It may have taken a tragedy, but Sen. George Barker (Alexandria) and Del. Rob Bell (Charlottesville) took the first steps towards reforming Virginia’s mental health system by introducing bills that will allow facilities charged with holding individuals in temporary detention or emergency custody to do so longer than previously allowed. 3 of these bills include SB115, HB293 and HB294.

Although Michael Martz of the Richmond Times Dispatch ascribes 2 of these bills to Del. Joseph Yost (Blacksburg), he nonetheless provides a good summary of what changes are in store if passed.
In a state that is very much inclined towards less government control in the lives of individuals, it almost seemed inevitable that a tragedy would have to occur before Virginia’s lawmakers finally moved to reform the state’s health care system. A tragedy is exactly what occurred, befalling one of the legislature’s very own.

Virginia presents a great experimental ground, then, for finding a middle-ground between civil liberties and social welfare with regards to mental health. Holding anyone against their will is abhorrent to many Virginians including myself, but in a number of cases extensions of temporary detention orders and emergency custody may be necessary for public safety. Virginia’s (Republican) lawmakers appear to be finally realizing this point.

But within the conversation about detention periods and psychiatric bed location procedures, what is left out is the critical need to focus more resources on preventing acts of violence related to mental health in the first place by treating individuals. Executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, Mira Signer, makes this point: “None of this can be done in a vacuum. You’ve got to have more resources.”

Contrary to a myth believed by some within the ranks of the Republican Party, investing in the well-being of individuals is not an unnecessary ‘handout’. That is, there are many Virginians in particular, and Americans in general, who genuinely need state and/or federal assistance to overcome their mental health adversities.

The real irony is that after so many different tragedies over such a broad expanse of time, you would think that anyone who isn’t onboard with mental health reform are truly the ones who need to have their heads examined, metaphorically speaking.



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