The drumbeat about declining mental health has been a steady one since the onset of the pandemic. This fact was driven home by the 2022 Rappahannock Area Community Health Assessment that listed “mental health” as the No. 1 most-important health need in our region.
Our region is hardly alone. Mental health issues across Virginia are plagued by a significantly underfunded mental health system that has suffered decades of neglect. There’s also a critical shortage of mental health professionals in the state. The new budget provides $155,6 million for behavioral health programs, but this relief won’t begin to touch the total need.
Against that backdrop, the recent announcement of a $79,800 grant from the Joe and Mary Wilson Community Benefit Fund of Mary Washington Hospital Foundation (MWHF) to fund one full-time child and adolescent therapist in a local school division may sound inconsequential.
It’s not, because it’s building upon an existing program that targets school-aged children facing significant challenges. And the program has proven itself effective.
The program got off the ground in 2022 following a pilot grant from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to provide out-patient therapy within the Fredericksburg City School System, and then expanded to Caroline County.
“That pilot grant is really moving the needle,” Brandie Williams, who is the deputy executive director (Rappahannock Area Community Services Board), tells the Advance.
Since its launch, the pilot program “has served over 125 students in Fredericksburg and Caroline combined,” she continues. All together, the therapist hired to deliver these services provided “1070 unique contacts, including therapy sessions, assessments, and contacts.” These amounted to over 500 hours of direct service.
The students receiving these services are at the higher end of the risk spectrum for mental health issues, according to Williams. They are children who are being removed from school or facing custody orders, and therefore not receiving adequate educational services.
“Our goal,” says Williams, “is to support their health needs in order to get them back into the classroom and focused on learning.”
And to date, the program is working, with kids receiving services successfully reentering the school environment and having greatly reduced numbers of visits to emergency rooms for mental health crises.
The $79,800 grant from MWHF will enable the program to hire another full-time child and adolescent therapist who will be based in a local school division.
Still, says Williams, “As significant as these two grants are for addressing behavioral health in our schools, there is a great deal more need we must attend to. These grants, however, are a first step in meeting these needs.”
Given the enormity of the mental health crisis in Virginia, first steps are the most important. Without them, we won’t realize the second, third, and fourth steps that will ultimately help us come to terms with the depth of this challenge.