It will be exactly one decade Nov. 19 since Creigh Deeds, Charlottesville’s state senator, lost his son Gus Deeds to suicide. Gus Deeds was a victim of a critically overcrowded and underfunded health system, and his suicide was a shocking and tragic event that impelled significant and novel legislative changes to the Commonwealth’s mental health policies. For example, Senate Bill 260, spearheaded by Creigh Deeds, guaranteed that Virginians admitted to hospitals under temporary detention orders have the right to receive timely psychiatric consultation, even if the hospitals are at capacity. This was an exceptionally important bill. However, today, Virginia still remains severely behind other states in regards to the quality of mental health care provided to residents — 34th in the country for access to care and, more disturbingly, 48th in the prevalence of mental illness in young people. On the surface, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new Right Help Right Now plan — which laudably invests in community-based health initiatives — has the potential to serve as a salient solution to this ongoing crisis. Youngkin’s failure to legislate with an eye towards equity, however, only worsens Virginia’s mental health crisis for the marginalized communities who are most in need of the assistance offered by this plan.
Youngkin’s Right Help Right Now plan promises over $20 million for mobile crisis hotlines — money that will increase the number of virtual responders available to care for Virginians in need — and $200 million for behavioral health initiatives, including locally-based ones. Youngkin’s plan will also expand telebehavioral health services, strengthen community-based approaches to promoting mental health, support emergency psychiatric departments and improve mental health services in public schools. If implemented correctly, Youngkin’s plan could be revolutionary for Virginia’s mental health and behavioral health sphere, in part because it aids community-based initiatives.
Youngkin’s plan reflects what many experts have already said — community-based mental health services are the future of this area of policymaking. Rather than waiting until a mental health emergency occurs, community mental health centers offer free, personal and accessible counseling for people struggling with mental health issues. Not only does this help to address socioeconomic barriers that may prevent certain groups from accessing private versions of these services, but it also enables mental health interventions to begin before individuals are in crisis and allows these interventions to address the patient’s needs holistically. Additionally, such centers are often beneficially tied to nearby housing and employment services — such as Charlottesville’s very own Region Ten. Multiple studies have demonstrated that these community-based centers yield greater amounts of participation, less stigma and healthier outcomes. Clearly Youngkin’s plan is a concrete step in the right direction towards embracing more community-based mental health care initiatives.
But the plan doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The Right Help Right Now plan does not exist in a vacuum — it is emphatically undermined by other policies that his administration has advanced. At the same time that Youngkin recognizes the need to extend more resources to crisis-stricken communities, he rescinds resources to some communities who are more deeply impacted by the mental health crisis. Consider that a month after the finalization of this plan, Youngkin legislated the systematic discrimination of transgender students in public schools — a minority group already experiencing a catastrophic level of suicidal ideology due to dysphoria, unsupportive families and an inexcusable lack of community resources. Youngkin’s most recent transphobic policies will violently take away more resources for transgender children, thus disturbing the safety and mental health of these children in addition to other young LGBTQ+ Virginians who have been victims of similar queerphobic legislation. In this way it becomes clear that while Youngkin’s mental health plan is revolutionary, it is unequivocally undermined by his exclusion of certain communities from the benefits the mental health plan promises.
Youngkin’s two measures — the one in favor of community-based mental health initiatives and the one which legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals — represent an inappropriate manner in which to legislate. While we can and should applaud efforts to expand access to mental health care through community-based interventions, we must also denounce Youngkin’s hypocrisy when he legislates in a manner that has a direct, negative impact on the mental health of marginalized communities.
All Virginians, like the Deeds family, deserve an apology for the pain induced by the broken system of mental health services in the Commonwealth. And the best apologies beget action. Creigh Deeds began important work, but a decade has passed and many of the flaws that precipitated his son’s suicide still persist. We can begin to address through more extensive community-health care initiatives that are equally accessible for all. While Youngkin’s administration should continue to make vital changes to the overall mental health care system, it must do so without its current hypocrisy. The administration must simultaneously empower community-based solutions and ensure that these solutions are equally accessible to all communities. Not until the government works to ensure the mental health of all citizens and address root causes does this crisis begin to be solved.
Scarlett Sullivan is a Viewpoint Writer who writes about Politics for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.