Virginia police make urgent plea to increase funding for mental health care

Virginia

ASHLAND, Va. (WRIC) — Law enforcement and health care representatives are urging state lawmakers to put dollars toward mental health care. Law enforcement says they’ve been sounding the alarm for years, but the need for services has been compounded by the pandemic.

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services recently announced the closing five of state-run psychiatric hospitals to new admissions. Police say that is leading to sometimes violent situations where those in crisis are waiting days for care.

Standing with officers from around the state and mental health care advocates on Tuesday, Maggie DeBoard, Herndon police chief and president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police called on Gov. Ralph Northam and the General Assembly to do more for mental health.

She said, “The mental health system in Virginia is clearly broken.”

With a special session coming up in August, Herndon said the time is now. She said this is not a law enforcement issue, yet officers are continually called upon to help.

“We’re not therapists, I mean, we’re going to do the best we can, but we’re not going to offer you anything real,” said Marion Police Chief John Clair. Clair says sometimes officers are assaulted, and often they’re finding there’s nowhere to turn.

Clair said, “In Marion, we had a 50-hour long event.”

Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard. Photo: Kerri O’Brien/8News
Virginia Chiefs of Police speaking to the media calling on Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia General Assembly to increase funding for mental health care in Virginia. Photo: Kerri O’Brien/8News

In Hopewell, officers recently responded to a pregnant woman holding a knife to her stomach. Police Chief Kamran Afzal says it took three days to get her care. He said, “We had to be with her in handcuffs for 72 hours because there was no space available.”

Officers waited with the woman, but that is also draining on a department of just 68 officers.

“We had to call in people for every 10-12 hours to bring a different officer in to sit with her,” Afzal said.

A lack of beds with some state hospitals no longer taking new admissions and a lack of alternative services is pushing the crisis to the street, says Jennifer Faison, executive director with the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards.

“Closing state hospitals to admissions simply shifts those risks from the hospitals to the community,” she said.

Faison says there is an unprecedented opportunity right now with the billions of federal dollars coming into Virginia. She and the others believe money from the American Rescue Plan could be used to increase bed space and provide resources at the local level that could prevent crisis situations.

Bruce Cruser, executive director for Mental Health America of Virginia says for several decades Virginia has underfunded mental health care. He added that’s populating local jails.

“Local jails hold many who’s incarceration could have been prevented with access to appropriate services,” he said. DeBoard stressed mental health affects additional rates, personal health and quality of life.

8News reached out to lawmakers, and House Republicans say they are looking into this and expect to have budget proposals next week. No word just yet from Virginia Democrats.

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