VA's Mental Health Initiative Moves Forward

Jul 22, 2014

A new General Assembly panel is vowing to conduct a thorough review of Virginia’s mental health system, while not shielding any “sacred cows” in the process.  The Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century held its inaugural meeting… and began by examining how the Commonwealth’s system is faring—then comparing it to other states. Members already seem determined to make reforms.  

The members were told that although the Assembly lengthened the time for emergency and temporary detention orders, they’re still the briefest in the nation. Panel member and Senator Janet Howell noted that revising state laws is not sufficient.  

“We’ve again tweaked them in the last several months. I think we have to acknowledge that our problem is basically a lack of services. And that is being caused by a lack of funding.”

They also learned that the state’s early intervention system to prevent frequent hospitalizations is underdeveloped.  And for patients in crisis, Virginia’s commitment standard that requires people to be a danger to themselves or others has been one of the most restrictive. Policy expert Kathryn Cohen said brain studies indicate the need for a different standard.

“Over 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder and over 40 percent of people with schizophrenia at times have anosognosia, which literally means ‘a lack of insight’ into their illness. That means they’re so sick, they don’t know they’re sick. And therefore they’re not going to comply with treatment or adhere to any sort of medication.”

So if patients are unable to make informed choices, a standard called “need-for-treatment” would work better to get them help.

Richmond, VA

The panel also learned that the new statewide database of available psychiatric beds is not updated frequently enough to make it real-time. State officials said they will work to make sure that hospital staffs update it before every shift change.