As Virginia’s Governor, it is my mission to make Virginia the best place to live, learn, work and raise a family. One critical component to delivering on this promise is to ensure that Virginia has a health care structure that supports the strong and resilient residents of the Commonwealth, which includes the resources for and support of mental health care. Throughout my campaign, I heard from Virginians about the challenges of accessing affordable, quality care. They told me their heart-wrenching stories of mental illness and substance abuse on families and communities. Virginia has a long history of “firsts,” and this includes in the mental health arena, when America’s first public mental health hospital was established in Williamsburg in 1773. It’s time to address our mental health crisis in an equally pioneering and innovative way.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the negative impacts for those who need mental health care. Even before the pandemic, many people of all ages, all across the Commonwealth, struggled with their mental health. Suicide, anxiety and depression have increased dramatically. The opioid crisis continues to devastate our communities. While the past two years have lessened the stigma for those seeking assistance and allowed more of us to talk openly about mental health and substance use needs, we still have work to do.
My administration will focus on wellness, prevention and treatment to meaningfully impact and strengthen mental health in the Commonwealth. One early emphasis will be on young Virginians: we know the tragic effect mental health and substance use have during the developmental years, in K-12, and higher education. Many of our colleges and universities, as well as many local school divisions, have substantially increased their focus and resources to empower students to address mental health and build resiliency a key strength that will serve them throughout life. But let’s be clear, young people are not the only ones struggling with mental health and substance use; these challenges affect people regardless of age, race, income or locality.
Diminishing the stigma for those seeking help is critical, but we also must ensure that quality prevention and treatment options are both available and accessible. We know that we must build additional services at the local level, especially preventive care, to help individuals manage their symptoms so they do not end up in crisis centers, hospitals or the justice system. Today, many other tools are available, including cognitive behavioral therapy, resiliency, telehealth and peer-counseling. These proven therapies can help give access to people who have struggled to get help when they need it most.
I am also committed to addressing long-standing challenges at Virginia’s mental health hospitals and to lessen the burden on localities, hospitals and law enforcement, especially our sheriffs. More often than not, when people with mental health issues need crisis care, they instead end up in emergency rooms or jails. Our public and private health workforce has been stretched and strained, yet still works mightily to deliver compassionate care. We must do everything we can to build a strong and vibrant workforce and to incentivize quality behavioral health providers throughout Virginia.
My administration is working with legislators this General Assembly session to make much-needed improvements to state hospital services and community mental health services. These critical actions include working to increase historically low salaries at state hospitals, bolster behavioral health and crisis services across Virginia, improve the discharge processes at state hospitals and develop an alternative custody service to relieve law enforcement of long hours waiting with patients in emergency departments.
Despite these challenges, impressive examples of innovation and service exist all across the Commonwealth. As with other health care services, our citizens deserve timely access, accountability, positive outcomes and consistent services throughout every Virginia community. We should not settle for short-term solutions; instead, we should strive for a best-in-class system that serves all Virginians.
The Virginians who shared their stories with me during the campaign all had varied experiences and struggles; what was common throughout was a sense of hope that perhaps others would not have to struggle as they did. As Governor, I will work to tackle these challenges and empower our citizens to build healthier and more resilient communities throughout our Commonwealth.
Glenn Youngkin is the 74th Governor of Virginia.