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Senator Mason Speaks about Virginia’s Mental Health Services

As part of the Schroeder Center for Health Policy’s speaker series on "State Policy on Mental Health and Substance Abuse," Senator Monty Mason recently spoke to the William & Mary community about Virginia’s mental health policies and improving the mix of community-based and hospital-based mental health services in the Commonwealth. Senator Mason (BA, ’89) is a member of the Virginia General Assembly and represents the Peninsula’s 1st Senate District (City of Williamsburg and parts of Newport News, James City County, Hampton, York County, and Suffolk). Senator Mason is also a member of the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Twenty-First Century, which has the goal of studying “the delivery of mental health services, including laws governing the provision of mental health services and the system of emergency, short-term, forensic, and long-term mental health services in the Commonwealth.”

Senator Mason’s talk focused on various aspects of mental health, starting with the structure of Virginia’s mental health system. Senator Mason noted that about 70 percent of Virginia’s mental healthcare services is provided by the state hospital system, which consists of only nine hospitals.  In comparison, other states typically provide similar mental health services through a community services system.  Virginia’s reliance on its hospital-based system, according to Senator Mason, results in overcrowding in state-run hospitals and emergency rooms and a shortage of beds, direct care nursing, and psychiatric and clinical professionals. Senator Mason stated that in Virginia, as a result, patients facing a mental health crisis can sometimes face a 10-day waiting period to receive a bed assignment, with police officers sitting in emergency rooms for days with individuals who are having a mental health crisis. 

To solve the problems of “grossly understaffed” hospitals and clogged emergency rooms, Senator Mason mentioned that Virginia is currently pushing towards patients receiving mental health treatment at crisis centers. By mid-summer, for example, Senator Mason commented that Riverside in Hampton will add 20 emergency psychiatric beds.  Senator Mason supports adding even more beds, which would be available to all residents living in the lower Peninsula. His hope is that this will help to alleviate the problem of families traveling far distances to receive mental health care for individuals suffering a mental health crisis. 

Senator Mason stated that another issue that Virginia faces is that individuals are entering the mental health system through the criminal justice system.  As an example, he highlighted that about 50 percent of Eastern State’s patients are there to restore their competence so that they can later be tried in court, oftentimes for misdemeanor offenses. 

Several policy initiatives that Senator Mason supports are increased focus on dialing 988 rather than 911 to connect people to mental health crisis counselors, the Marcus alert system which requires a behavioral health response to a mental health crisis, and STEP-VA, which requires standardized and equal treatment, including same-day assessments and outpatient services provided by Community Services Boards, for mental health emergencies throughout Virginia's urban and rural regions.

Senator Mason encouraged W&M’s students to work in the mental health care system, driving policy change and raising public awareness of the problems Virginia faces most particularly the inefficiencies within the state hospital system and the urgent need for community-based mental health resources.

On September 28th, the Schroeder Center for Health Policy welcomes Jeff Lunardi, the Executive Director of the Virginia Joint Commission on Health Care, as its second speaker in its series on “State Policy on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.”  Mr. Lunardi will speak about “Addressing Behavioral Health in Virginia:  State Policy Role.”  To register to attend, please click here.