May is Mental Health Awareness Month – a great time to check in on recent progress in Virginia to increase access to treatment for children and youth who need it. State and local advocates continue to push for policy changes, funding, and services that improve care.
Often, it is young people and their families affected by mental health challenges who make the most effective advocates. Senator Creigh Deeds, whose son Gus died from lack of treatment for psychosis, has been the most vocal advocate – though certainly not the only one – in the General Assembly. The Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Twenty-first Century, often referred to as the Deeds Commission, was created in the wake of his family’s tragedy. Deeds’ son, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attacked his politician father before taking his own life in 2013.
With leadership of that commission and guided by the work of the Virginia Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services (DBHDS), the Commonwealth has developed and begun to fund a uniform set of behavioral health services for children and adults in the public mental health system. The first service to be fully funded and implemented statewide under STEP-VA (System Transformation Excellence and Performance) is same-day access. Governor Northam announced in March that no matter which of the forty community services boards (CSBs) you walk into seeking a mental health evaluation for yourself or for your child, you will receive an evaluation that day with a follow-up appointment scheduled within ten days. This change has eliminated waiting lists and is designed to meet individuals’ needs in a timely way when they are seeking help.
The Deeds Commission will continue its work for another two years, focusing on overcrowding that exists in state hospitals and the redesign of the behavioral health system through STEP-VA and Medicaid changes, among other issues. The commission will also examine how to better provide mental health services in schools.
Many in the Richmond community are familiar with local advocates Grace and David Gallagher, who started the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation to continue their daughter’s efforts to raise awareness about teen mental illness. Tragically, Cameron died in 2014 after completing the Shamrock Half Marathon due to an undiagnosed heart condition. Her parents knew of her intention to share her own struggles with depression and anxiety by planning a 5k race, and they followed her lead by organizing the SpeakUp 5k. In addition to reducing stigma through races – now held in six communities across the country – the foundation provides education to teens about mental health and mindfulness.
The foundation celebrated an expansion of its reach at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in April for the Cameron K. Gallagher Mental Health Resource Center at the new Virginia Treatment Center for Children (VTCC), part of Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. The new facility on Sherwood Avenue in Richmond provides inpatient and outpatient mental health services to children.
According to Grace Gallagher, naming the center for their daughter was fitting. “It was Cameron’s specific wish to raise money to support VTCC because of all the good support and help they provided on her own journey,” said Gallagher. The VTCC is a place where any family can go to learn and receive support and guidance about their child’s mental wellness.
Information about the Deeds Commission: studies.virginiageneralassembly.gov
Find your community services board: virginia.gov/community-services-boards-csbs
Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation: ckgfoundation.org
Virginia Treatment Center for Children: chrichmond.org/services/virginia-treatment-center-for-children.htm