Virginia Schools Grapple with Mental Health Crisis Among Students as Threat of Service Reduction Looms


NEW RICHMOND, Va. One mental health professional said that trying to help the kids in Virginia who are in crisis is like “drinking from the firehose.”

“Since the pandemic, it really has felt like a crisis,” said Dr. Sandra Henderson, a child psychologist.

In Virginia, 40% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless every day for at least two weeks that they stopped doing the things they normally would have. This was found by a state-run school climate poll. Thirteen percent of high school kids polled said they had really thought about committing suicide.

A 2023 poll of middle school students found similar results: 34% said they felt sad and lost for at least two weeks in a row, and 11% said they were thinking about committing suicide.

“There’s a kind of a hum, or a thread of anxiety, that kind of weaves its way through almost all of them,” said Henderson. “Just feeling unsettled, feeling uncomfortable, feeling on high alert that just seems to be pervasive right now with kids and teenagers.”

Henderson has noticed that many of the referrals she has received recently have come from school mental health workers who saw a child as needing extra help from outside sources.

“In fact, they’re our first line of defense in schools.” Someone like a school psychologist, counselor, or social worker is often the first to notice something is wrong with a child, she said.

But, she said, they’re too busy.

“There’s just not enough [help] available for the need that’s out there, and we’re all feeling it as providers,” he said. “People are just barely getting by. I mean, every new worker is full-time and always busy.

The Behavioral Health Commission said in a report released in November 2023 that 45% of Virginia kids who need more advanced help don’t have access to it at school.

The report says that the lack of services is partly due to a lack of providers and funds, especially in areas where children are most likely to be having problems.

Most school districts used their government stimulus money to improve mental health services during the pandemic.

School Board records show that Richmond Public Schools used millions of dollars in one-time COVID-19 relief funds to keep or hire more than a dozen counselors, psychologists, student support experts, and family liaisons.

A spokesperson for Henrico Public Schools said that the district spent almost $3 million a year on adding 31 counselors and two social workers thanks to pandemic funds.

The Behavioral Health Commission report showed that 64% of school districts in the state spent a total of $123 million COVID on mental health programs.

But that money runs out next year, and 40% of divisions are worried that they might lose some of their services. Alyssa Schwenk, a spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools, said that “every school division in America is well aware of” this limit.

“This year, as we get ready to make budgets, we’ll be thinking carefully and with students in mind about how to handle the end of stimulus funding.” “Part of this will be looking at how we can make the most of our operational funds and new grant money,” Schwenk said.

In order to prevent any “backsliding” of services, the Behavioral Health Commission suggested that state lawmakers find more ways for school systems to get money.

As for any possible gaps in school-based mental health programs, Dr. Henderson said she hoped that state leaders would fill them.

“It’s completely illogical to take away what is in place right now,” he said. “It would just be a plea to please help.”

Members of the bipartisan commission, according to Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Northern Virginia), plan to move forward with a plan to increase funding for a pilot program through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. This program has helped bring mental health professionals to school divisions and connect districts to outside community partners in the mental health care continuum.

The test program ran with six school districts last year, such as Richmond, Hopewell, and Hanover. Favola said that she would like to see more school areas join.

Governor Glen Youngkin (R-Virginia) talked about spending more money to fix Virginia’s mental health care system when he released his suggested budget on Wednesday morning. One way he planned to do this was by adding more crisis services and tackling problems with substance abuse.

Youngkin’s office spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said, “Over the biennium, the governor proposed $23 million to expand access to school-based mental health services for children, including telehealth.”

Porter also said that the budget he proposed would pay for tele-behavioral health for students in schools 6 through 12 who have permission from their parents.

As part of the governor’s plan, school districts will get $15 million a year in grants that they can use to hire community-based mental health services and get help setting up those services and paying insurance companies for them.

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